If brevity is the soul of wit, then there’s nothing amusing about most business writing. Our old friend Shakespeare would be disappointed. We’re due for a scolding from Winston Churchill and Dr. Seuss. One of the most effective things you can do to improve your writing is to do a lot less of it. Here are my recommendations.
Omit needless words
William Strunk, co-author of The Elements of Style, has succinct advice, “Omit needless words.” One of the inadvertent lessons from school was how to pad for word count. We intentionally made our writing verbose to meet the specific word counts carelessly included as part of school assignments. All those teachers who encouraged us to fill up a page instead of writing succinctly should have their knuckles rapped.
“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components,” says William Zinsser in On Writing Well. You might think it’s a recipe for dry copy but have a look at Bernadette Jiwa’s blog, The Story of Telling, or read anything by Seth Godin. They’re masters of captivating copy, putting more value in a couple of paragraphs than you can imagine.
Use plain language
Certain industries are masters at complicated writing. The military, technology and engineering fields are known for complicated sentences and big words. Winston Churchill took issue with the War Cabinet in a missive just as valuable as the day it was knocked out on a manual typewriter. Among the pithy advice:
- Use short, crisp paragraphs
- Remove complication by putting statistics and detailed analysis in an appendix
- Rely on bullet points
- Kill unnecessary phrases and substitute with one or two words
I swiped an image of the memo from a post on LinkedIn:
Say what you mean
If you’re having trouble getting started, blurt it out. Use bullet points, expect and accept you’ll write an ugly first draft and start putting words on paper. Overthinking what you want to say and how you want to say it is a recipe for convoluted writing. You can go back and edit later. Chances are you’ll find the exercise of dumping your thoughts on paper is a good way to avoid puffery in your prose.
When was the last time you took a writing class? We’re accustomed to practicing most things, especially music, sports, cooking and public speaking. When it comes to writing, we are content with the instruction we received when we were young even though excellent writing skills are highly desired by employers. People who can write, and write well, have a competitive advantage with hiring managers and are a valuable resource to any organisation.
Take pity on your audience
We’re all busy. Getting eyes on a page is hard enough, but keeping them there is downright difficult. Get to the point and don’t take a lot of time doing it. If advice from Shakespeare feels too grand for your skills, consider the wisdom of Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss.
It has often been said
there’s so much to be read,
you never can cram
all those words in your head.
So the writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.
That’s why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader’s relief is.
Reading habits have changed, but the best advice for writers hasn’t changed in centuries. Keep a light touch on the page and your readers will love you. There’s no reward for long prose and most of us don’t want to work to get the information we need. By removing needless words, stating things in plain language and avoiding long phrases, you create more effective text.
I’d love to hear your best writing tips. Tweet me at @SarahMitchellOz.