Here’s the truth. No one wants to read what you write. Everyone is time-starved. For many, the best moments in the day are when we see an email we don’t have to read and can hit “delete.”
Because we’re time starved, we write something, give it a quick look, and then hit “send.” We forget that we’re writing to persuade people to do something –not noticing that what we’ve created just made it harder for them to agree with us. One of our chief sins is …
Kill the Clichés. When you use these, you scream, “I have no original thoughts! I’m doing this on autopilot.” Why would anyone want to read further –let alone care what you think?
Make a better choice. Switch “at this time” to “now.” Change “enclosed/attached please find” to “here is.” Drop “it has come to our attention” for “we understand.” You’ll notice this already makes your writing more succinct, which you’ll need to …
Stop Droning On. It’s neuroscience. Once a sentence passes the 25-word mark, you can’t remember the subject. (Or maybe you just no longer want to.) Aim for an average of 10- to 12-word sentences in reports and speeches, and eight-to-10 words in emails.
Don’t think that commas, dashes and semicolons can save you. It’s true: the first two give your readers a place to take a breath in their minds. But don’t abuse this tactic. Cut that longer sentence into two. And generally avoid using semicolons. They mostly confuse people — and could lead to arguments with English majors (who will be happy to tell you when you’ve used them incorrectly).
Watch the length of your paragraphs. Few things are as discouraging as seeing one that goes on for 20 lines. Earlier this year, I reviewed a document with a 265-word sentence, in a paragraph that lasted a page (single-spaced). I was the only person who read it — and forgot the subject 10 times.
Get to the Good Stuff Fast. Before you begin, consider what your readers know. If you must, reference important shared knowledge quickly. But spend most of your time on new ideas. Telling people what they already know — at length — bores them or makes them think you’re talking down to them. They’ll either stop reading (because they’re not learning anything) or get angry with you.
A colleague once explained it this way, “Reading his writing was like taking the local versus the express bus.” Most non-engineers don’t need to get into the weeds on the hows or whys of something. Focus on what’s in it for your reader, then decide what to keep or junk.
It’s a Conversation
Read your writing out loud. Watch for the words that stumble off your lips — or when this is language you’d never ordinarily use. (“Pursuant” anyone?) Change those.
Often your writing is the conversation you have with someone on paper or screen before you have the conversation on the phone or in person. Don’t bore them. You’ll miss the chance at that second conversation — and getting what you want.