Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Shorter Is Better

Most people think of "rushing about" as a modern dilemma. But though faster technology and unlimited options have exacerbated "hurry sickness," dislike of "wasted time" has been around for quite a while. The classic composition booklet Elements of Style, first published in 1918, urges writers to avoid wasting readers' time with "needless words": "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."

A sure way to offend magazine editors is to submit a manuscript with the comment "I know you don't normally publish stories of over 1,000 words, but I'm sure you'll find this 3,000-word piece is worth making an exception for." Such approaches frequently come from writers who haven't even bothered trying to shorten their first drafts. And the temptation is even worse in business writing, where there are no official word counts, no obvious immediate rejections, usually more of a sense of "rush," and (in e-writing) no extra expense involved for additional length. No extra expense in terms of print costs, that is. One can only guess how many potential customers lose interest after one glance at the infinitesimal size of a screen-height bar, or give up in disgust after two rambling paragraphs.

The #1 hint for concise business writing is Take time to edit. First drafts always ramble; it's unavoidable.

Some other (short and sweet!) hints:
  • The word that, and phrases containing it ("the fact that," "it occurs to me that"), are among the most dispensable items. Ditto for qualifier adverbs such as usually, frequently, and very.
  • Active voice ("Tom brought the salad") is more concise and stronger than passive ("The salad was brought by Tom").
  • Replace adjectival phrases with nouns, and adverbial phrases with verbs. ("Prodigy" instead of "brilliant young man," "sprinted" instead of "ran quickly.")
  • Keep a thesaurus handy; it cuts words wasted trying to achieve precise descriptions.
  • Keep your topic or thesis narrow, and remove any sentences (or paragraphs!) that don't relate to it.

Hope this post was short enough!

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