Use fewer words. If there is one thing you learn from me, learn that. I’ll show you how.
If you’re in business, people read what you write on a screen. Their inbox is filled with crap. You’ve got to get them hooked quickly, deliver your message, and then let them get on with their day. Remember the Iron Imperative:
You must treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.
So why are you still wasting people’s time with writing that is too long? Insecurity. You’re afraid to get right to the point; you need to warm up. You say the same thing several different ways since you’re not sure which is best. It takes you a while to figure out what you’re saying. You add words to hedge.
Your ideal should be tight writing. Eliminate everything you don’t need. The tighter you write, the more persuasive you will be. Don’t just trim the fat. Lop off the stuff you liked but that isn’t helping enough.
Here are some tricks that will help you write shorter. I’ve organized them from the broadest content advice all the way down to word editing with a summary table at the end. As you write, follow these tips in order.
No one writes tight prose on the first draft. You need time and effort to get the words out of your head and onto the page. Admit your imperfection. Write, and allow time to self-edit. With practice your drafts will get tighter, but you’ll always need to edit.
Aim for a word count.
Your emails should be under 250 words. Your blog posts should be under 750. Learn the feel of a 100, 300, 500, or 1000-word hunk of prose. Imagine that words cost $10 a piece. How much can you afford to spend and where can you economize? A word count makes brevity a concrete goal.
Say what you really mean.
Sometimes you have to draft a whole piece to understand what you really mean. That’s ok, as long as you go back and get rid of the parts that no longer apply. Get rid of text that doesn’t support your main point.
Introductory text is wasteful — scrap it. Your first 50 words should intrigue the reader. Start boldly, with text like this: “We need to rethink the way we do customer service,” or “Are we ready to expand geographically?” Never start with a hedge or an apology. Start with a bold statement.
It feels unnatural to write this way. That’s ok. You can start by writing with whatever it takes to get you warmed up, as long as you go back and delete it before you’re done.
Have you hit the same point in several paragraphs or sections? Pull them together and eliminate the redundancy. Reorganize your prose around the main points, and pull the material that supports those points together in one place. The result is not just shorter, it’s easier for readers to comprehend.
Prune sections and arguments.
If you’ve got five sections, could you do with three or four? Could you cut a whole paragraph without weakening the argument? Have you given four examples when two would suffice?
The point is not to show how much you know, it is to save the reader time. Removing material that is weak or redundant makes your whole piece stronger. Cut. Cut more. If you can’t stand it, get someone else to edit and tell you which parts are weakest.
Adding words to a weak argument makes it seem weaker. Getting rid of it altogether may be in improvement.
Use bullets or tables.
Lists written out in prose (e.g. “Firstly,” “Secondly,” or “On the one hand,” “Alternatively”) take up extra space. Where possible, convert to a bulleted list. Bold the first phrase or sentence to make things easier to parse. For information that’s sufficiently structured, tables pack a lot of information into an easily understood package.
A simple diagram is often easier to comprehend than a lump of prose. It allows you to make a statement and support it without having to go into extraneous detail. But keep the graphic simple; don’t just replace tangled prose with impenetrable pictures.
Trim connective tissue.
All the “therefores” and “as a result” take up space, both on the screen and in the reader’s brain. Look for long sentences and break them into shorter ones. This makes prose easier to digest.
Transitions between sections need be only one sentence, such as “Now that we’ve addressed pricing, let’s look at the impact on distribution.”
Delete weasel words and qualifiers.
Every “very,” “considerable,” or “on the other hand” not only weakens your prose, it makes it longer. Review what you’ve written and get rid of qualifying words. Make specific, true statements rather than broad generalizations with qualifiers that invalidate them.
21 responses to “10 tips on how to write shorter”
“Your blog posts should be under 750.”
This post is 811 words 🙂
It’s a target.
I know — just ribbin’ ya.
You are awesome. The grand master ninja of no bullshit.
Great post. Major challenge for me has always been time. Setting aside time for editing always improves my writing, but can also end up taking an extraordinary amount of time. Sometimes I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. Especially when I hit the diminishing returns, where a word change here or there improves it in my own mind, but I’m not sure anyone else would notice. To avoid this problem I try to set time limits. Works sometimes.
If you have time to plan ahead and also time-box the editing stage, you’ll get the best result.
Great read, as always.
I’d like to add that using words with lesser syllables also helps to make an article punchier, shorter and easier to read. For example, say ‘free’ and not ‘complimentary’; ‘take part’ and not ‘participate’.
Yes, “trim connective tissue” such as “gear-changing words.” But your “therefore” and “as a result” examples aren’t that. They’re logical connectives, and trimming them obscures structure.
Your ten principles are right on but the examples for that 9th one one are based on the fallacy that saving space means saving time. Using logic words shortens the time most readers’ brains need to spend on interpreting your meaning.
If you were talking about poetry and such, I agree that removing logical connectives makes it more pleasing because the enjoyment comes from the esthetics of the text and the engagement required to interpret it. But if you’re talking about writing like what we do at Forrester, whose purpose is pragmatic, that’s a fallacy — don’t you think, Josh?
I see your point, David. I also see people using elaborate phrases to avoid getting to the meat of what they say. Perhaps my examples weren’t exactly on target, but there’s lots of extra connective stuff that can get trimmed in most writing.
I agree that’s a widespread problem, Josh, and your ten tips are so good that I couldn’t help suggesting this small improvement to your accompanying post!
This is great advice, obviously born of hard-won experience. My favorite pearl, out of many: “Imagine that words cost $10 a piece.”
God, where were you when I was sending out those 40 page emails to everyone I worked with or knew personally? Oh well, live and learn. I wish more bloggers lived by these rules. I hate (and I mean HATE) those openers that are apologetic, or have some pointless *cute and charming* story to lead into the actual post. Or worst of all: the generic, vauge sounding language that might as well has been copied and pasted from some other asshole’s blog post
I really like what your doing to encourage people to write concisely and in clear, plain English.
Would you like to review our software package – StyleWriter, the plain English editor.
If so, have a look at our website http://www.editorsoftware.com and then contact me on email@example.com
Avoid tautology too.
Great list of tips. Thank you for the “why it’s hard” column, it makes me feel better. Especially for using graphics, “You’re a writer, not an illustrator.” Yes! Someone understands my pain!
(Incidentally, in the “Why it helps” column for “Aim for a word count,” you say “it’s” when you meant to say “it.” Doesn’t look great when the table is printed out and taped to the wall.)
Great list of tips. Thank you for the “why it’s hard” column, it makes me feel better.