Welcome to the inaugural edition of E38 Academy’s new series of blog posts designed to help you improve your professional skills in a hurry. Today’s drill: keeping your writing short and sweet.
Most forms of professional writing, from analytical reports to memos and even emails, are reading assignments for very busy people. Wordiness is a cardinal sin for memo writers. Time is money. And yet most people’s written work is too wordy. Why?
First, writers often include interesting but irrelevant information. After doing a lot of research people usually want to make sure everyone knows how much work they did. Unfortunately, this means that you have to hear about the three office printers that are not under consideration as well as the three office printers that actually are being considered for purchase.
Example: “We reviewed four possible locations for our new West Coast office: San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, and Los Angeles. We also initially considered Albuquerque and Las Vegas. Las Vegas was particularly interesting because of the fact that people love to travel there and our clients might enjoy a bit of gambling. And Albuquerque is a nice place because the weather is so good. But in the end we only reviewed the four cities.”
This paragraph clearly does not provide an analysis of either Las Vegas or Albuquerque but the author wastes over 50 words talking about two cities that will never be mentioned again! The simple solution to this problem would be to cut everything except the first sentence.
Second, writers often fail to spend the necessary time to find the most efficient way to explain their topic. Thanks to the way our brains work it is easier to remember a few important ideas than to remember many less important things. Thankfully, having a big picture understanding of a situation is enough for most purposes. For this reason you should try to create explanations that contain the fewest possible major themes.
Example: Imagine you have been asked by a client to summarize how a bill becomes a law in the United States. The table below provides two ways to present the information. In most cases, the concise version will be the more appropriate option.
|Long Version||Concise Version|
|Bill is introduced in the House. Bill is introduced in the Senate. Bill is referred to House committee. Bill is referred to Senate committee. House committee votes on bill. Senate committee votes on bill. Full House votes on bill. Full Senate votes on bill. If approved, House and Senate conference committee creates compromise bill. Compromise bill sent back to House and Senate. House votes on bill. Senate votes on bill. If approved, bill goes to president for signature or veto.||Bill is introduced in the House and Senate. House and Senate committees work on the bill. House and Senate vote on the bill. Approved bills go to the president for signature or veto.|
Finally, many writers simply use too many words, using run-on sentences or sentences full of unnecessary words that are not actually informing the reader.
Example: “The efforts focused on characterizing biological threats, detecting biological compounds or composite elements and modeling their consequences are widespread and pervasive nationwide, but in most cases are not fully integrated with other pertinent decision making activities associated with collective, comprehensive, layered proactive domestic biological defense.”
Did you notice that this paragraph (an actual sentence from a report that shall go unnamed) is a single sentence! It is so long and complicated that it is almost impossible to figure out what the author is trying to say.
The world is complex enough. Keep your writing simple. When you boil it all down, one much shorter sentence here would do just fine: Current efforts at detecting biological threats are not well integrated with policy.
So next time you write something, ask yourself three questions: 1) Did I include any superfluous information? 2) Did I find the most efficient way to explain my argument? 3) Do my sentences contain any extraneous words?
That quick diagnostic effort will keep your writing concise and your readers happy.
For more on purging your prose and other ways to become a better writer, check out our free one-hour course, Ten Tips for Improving Your Analytic Writing.