How to write less

by Simon Grover on

If you’re reading something because you have to, rather than because you want to, you want it to be short. But how can you make sure that the things YOU write are as short as they can be?

Famously, Mark Twain quipped, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”.

As with many famous quotes, he probably didn’t actually say that, or it was someone else. But it’s a good reminder that waffling on is often easier than staying pithy.

One of the things we invariably advise our clients to do is write less. It’s a good idea for several reasons.

First, when you’re an expert in your subject and your reader isn’t, they’re unlikely to be as interested in what you’re talking about as you are.

Second, and connected to the first, is that experts like you tend to be interested in the process. But your reader is probably more interested in the benefit, or end result. Like the mechanic who goes into mystifying detail about the inner workings of your car instead of telling you if they can fix it, we forget to focus on what our audience cares about. We say too much.

Third, if the point of your communication is to get someone to know, feel or do something, then anything else you say that isn’t that is in danger of being a distraction.

And fourth, everyone’s busy. So everyone prefers shorter communications. There’s no point issuing a piece of literary genius if no one can be bothered to read it.

So if Mark Twain (and the rest) struggled to write less, how can you? Here are a few ideas.

  1. Identify your big idea

If you had to put your message in twenty words, what would you say? Start with that, and only add things that demand to be there.

  1. Cut out the throat-clearing

Warm-up phrases like ‘As you probably know’ and ‘Following on from our meeting of 13th April’ are standard corporate padding. You can almost always do without them. Get to the point.

  1. Get your story in order

Note down how we got here, what’s happened, and what’s happening next. Then only include the bits of that story that your reader really needs.

  1. Cut out the process

Does your reader need to know how things used to be before the change, or can you just tell them how things are now? Do they need to know who made the decision, when and where, or just what the decision was?

  1. Write like you speak

Everyday words tend to be shorter and more meaningful than business words. Think ‘help’ instead of ‘assistance’, ‘sorry’ instead of ‘apologise’, or ‘talk’ instead of ‘engagement’. Use words like these to have a greater impact in less space.


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