How to Write Less

Most people write too much. Remember the junior high school version of you who was told to write a minimum of three pages for an essay? You clawed and scratched and cajoled that word count higher. But guess what? You still weren’t concise. You took three pages to write something that could have been expressed in one. And when you turned it in, you hoped the teacher wouldn’t notice you were full of crap.

Less is better for three reasons:

  1. Most people don’t read—they skim. You’re skimming this right now because you’ve got five more articles open in other tabs.
  2. Most people don’t pay attention for very long. Take the revamped layouts of Slate, AV Club or The Daily Beast as examples. They’re chock full of headlines and pictures with little text because the editors understand they have exactly one line and image to generate reader interest.
  3. Writers are competing for readers’ attentions. You could be reading anything right now. Do you want to read one long article or two short ones?

At this point, most people protest. “But I love to read!” they say. Yeah, so do I, but I have some questions for you:

  • Have you ever avoided reading an e-mail because it would take too much time?
  • Have you ever said to a friend, “I haven’t gotten around to reading your blog post yet, but it’s on my list”?
  • Have you ever finished a book, article or blog post and said, “Now I’ve read everything I ever wanted to read; there’s nothing left for me”?

The answers for most of us are yes, yes and no. We avoid reading poorly-written, long-winded letters from Aunt Dorah. We don’t want to see our friend’s rambling blog post about teatime in Turkmenistan when we can read a professional writer’s succinct recap. And we always have more stuff we want to read but not enough time to read it. Which is exactly why concise writing is important—there’s so much content out there, and readers get to choose the best stuff.

We avoid reading poorly-written, long-winded letters from Aunt Dorah. We don’t want to see our friend’s rambling blog post about teatime in Turkmenistan when we can read a professional writer’s succinct recap.

If you are still protesting, let me ease your fears by explaining that concise writing is not:

  • Exposition for ADHD-riddled anti-intellectuals: Don’t let academics tell you that writing is supposed to be dry and hard to read. Such writing is often an attempt to confuse the reader. “If I use big words and wordy sentences,” the thinking goes, “you have to at least give me a B-.” Forget that. It is much more difficult to express something simply and eloquently than to slap big words on paper.
  • 1984: I am not from the Ministry of Information, removing words from the dictionary in an effort to reduce free thought. I’m asking you to carefully choose the words you do use.
  • (Necessarily) Hemingway: His prose certainly wasn’t turgid, but it also wasn’t interesting. You can be concise and still be colorful.

Here are 5 tips to help you write concisely:

#5: Be direct

Example of what not to write: “I had a thought that perhaps later we could think about doing something.”

Qualifiers make your writing come off as weak, while confusing the reader about what exactly you are asking them to do. Have an opinion and stick to it. Ask a bold question and be ready to answer it.

#4: Rethink adverbs
Don’t be very hyperbolic. Really. It’s just not necessary.

Before using words like “really”, “very” and “just”, think about whether they add anything to the statement. If not, cut them.

#3: Hate jargon
Do not engage in capacity building on resource mobilisation through multi-stakeholder platform engagement processes with donor funds from bilateral institutions (i.e. UNITA). Don’t do it.

#2: Use basic verbs
Due to the fact that this post is about concise writing, you might come to the conclusion that you should make an effort to employ brevity in your writing.

Why not use “conclude” instead of “come to the conclusion”? Why not say “try” instead of “make an effort”?

#1: Delete unnecessary words
As Elliott Bell writes in an excellent piece:

Take the following sentence from a message I received recently:

“At this point in time, I think it would make a lot of sense for us all to regroup on the issue and come up with a few key points for discussion at our meeting in two weeks that will help us get closer to finding a solution that works for all parties.”

What’s the main point here? It’s hard to tell with so many additional words. A phrase like, “at this point in time” doesn’t add anything, and thus doesn’t need to be included. Why not re-write it like this?

“Let’s all come up with 2-3 discussion points on the issue before our next meeting.”

Everyone on the thread knows what you’re talking about, there’s a clear point to the sentence, and you’ve just cut down your word count by about 70%.

If this doesn’t come naturally, learn to edit. Good writers emphasize quality over quantity, so they read their work and edit it. They see the words that add nothing and cut them.

Now, I just have to fit this into 140 characters for the Twitter post…

5 Comments How to Write Less

  1. Pingback: Follow-Up: You Won't Read All of This | Serial Monography

  2. Mannie Cranford

    Jeff, Ora Cranford’s father- long time no see! As an teacher of English I applaud you junior HS teacher as she most certainly had editing as a skill in her plan as she assigned a topic and a minimum of 500 words. Her next assignment should have been something like, “Now, go back through your essay and eliminate all contractions and various forms of the verb ‘to be’.” She taught editing skills, probably with mini lessons on sentence variety and combing by eliminating words with the end goal conciseness but message delivered. I point you to an excellent reference, “A River Runs Through It” by McClean where a Presbyterian minister has his son revise an essay at least five times for clarity and conciseness (nice read too and a good flick by Robert Redford).
    Only one story is ever told or written! The monomyth. Read Joseph Campbell or type in monomyth to Google to view “The Hero’s Journey” or commentary. I believe the monomyth is the method to explore all writing. Now go through your writing and eliminate all “there is” construction. I apologize my computer will not allow me to highlight or underline in this email format. I shall read thoroughly each post. What is (are) your novel(s) about? Fiction or non? How is living in Bali? I enjoy your posts.
    If Hemingway is a choice, then why are verbose authors like Faulkner or Steinbeck so widely read and influential? mc


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