There’s an old rule of public speaking: ‘Make sure you stop talking before your audience stops listening.’
Same with writing. You have your readers’ attention for only a limited time. You need to make your point before they tune out.
So for most business writing that means: as long as necessary and as short as possible.
How long is necessary? That will depend on what your topic is, what your point is, how much your reader already knows and how much they need to be told. More on that another day.
Today we’ll focus on ‘as short as possible’. Once you’ve decided what you need to say, say it concisely. 200 words that people will read is better than 400 words that make them switch off after 100 because the rest looks a bit dull.
What are our tips for concise writing? You can think of it as working at two levels: the word and the sentence.
The word: short words are better than long words. Fewer words are better than more words. So ‘start’ not ‘commence’. ‘Try’ not ‘attempt’. ‘If’ not ‘in the event that’. ‘Because of’ not ‘as a consequence of’.
Kill those dull phrases that turn perfectly good verbs into abstract nouns. ‘Decide’ not ‘reach a decision’. ‘Apply’ not ‘make an application’. ‘Help’ not ‘provide assistance’.
There’s a good rogue’s gallery of this sort of bureaucratic verbiage, with plain language alternatives, in the new Australian Government Style Manual. And yes, if you want to write tightly, this stuff does matter. With two or three superfluous words in each line, before long your whole document is 10 or 20 per cent longer than necessary.
Make sure that every sentence pays its way. Every sentence should answer the ‘So what?’ test: how does it contribute to the point you’re making in this paragraph?
A good trick for spotting the less-important sentence is: as you reread your draft, look at each sentence in turn with the ones on either side of it. Think: ‘If I cut out the sentence in the middle, would it really matter?’
It might be a very fine sentence that makes a clever and subtle point, but is it vital to your line of argument? If not, consider deleting it. Of course you’ll be sorry to lose that clever and subtle point – but remember, it’s not about you. Your readers won’t care, because your readers will never know what you’ve cut out. For them, all that matters is that what’s left still works.
Finally, a meta-tip on how to do all this: for any document that’s important enough for you to care, don’t try to write and review in the same session.
Writing is creative; reviewing is repair. Writing is putting the picture on the blank canvas; reviewing is touching it up. They’re different activities that use different parts of the brain. Don’t make it hard for yourself by trying to do both at once.
So write the first draft in creative mode: focus on the ideas and don’t worry too much about the word count. Set it aside for a while – that could be anything from minutes to days, depending on how long it is and how important it is. The aim is that when you come back to it you’ll have some mental distance from your own work and you can start to think more like an editor.
When you come back to it, try to cut it by at least a quarter without losing anything important. Unless you’re a first-draft genius, you’ll be amazed by how easy it is.