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.