We’ve all been subjected to them. The memos that go on forever. The 200-page self-help book that was really only one good magazine article. The presentation that takes 10 minutes to get to the first salient point. And invariably within these communications are the sentences that become a paragraph — or are so long that when you reach the end, you can’t remember the subject.
And worse — sometimes we were the author! But we’re smarter now and have learned to watch for the signs of flabby prose. Here are some tricks you can use to cut them down to size.
Trick #1: Build a super structure. Organize your thoughts before you write. If you’re not certain where you’re going, write down all of your ideas and then review them for the most logical progression. For example, if your intent is to persuade, put your strongest argument first. If you put it last (“I want to end with a bang!”) readers might not get that far and your best thinking will be missed.
Trick #2: If a word doesn’t add — subtract it. Be merciless until there’s nothing left to tighten. Start with clichés. Never again write “enclosed please find” instead of “here is,” or “at this time” instead of “now.” If a sentence is 30 words, it’s too long, and there must be something you can cut. The average length in business writing is 10 to 15 words. Change that to eight to 10 if the material is complex, or when you’re writing emails.
Trick #3: Practice word choice variety. Don’t begin several sentences in a row — or consecutive paragraphs — with the same word (especially “I”). Read each paragraph to ensure you aren’t repeating a word or phrase too often. But use that thesaurus sparingly: don’t signal readers that you’re searching very hard for another word to use. Also vary your transitions. My personal failing is to frequently use “so,” which means I look for that. Repetition — unless it’s effectively used for emphasis (“government of the people, by the people and for the people”) — is boring and makes readers zone out.
Trick #4: Use the active voice. It’s the difference between “I will do it” versus “It will be done by me.” The first is much stronger — and shorter. The only reasons to take the passive approach are if you don’t know who did something or don’t wish to identify that person.
Trick #5: Watch for consistency. Keep an eye on changes in tense, such as sliding between past and present. Choose one and stick with it — unless you’re actually discussing different time frames. Do the same thing with capitalization: it’s either “Company” or “company” in the middle of a sentence. (I default to the latter because the former can look like legalese or bespeak a firm’s ego.) And watch that your subheads use the same approach: all bold, or underlined or the same color.
Trick #6: Keep writing reference materials — or buddies — handy. If grammar, punctuation and usage are not your strong suits, know where to get help. Spell check is a good start but doesn’t catch everything. Have those books by your desk, or websites marked as favorites, so you can easily use them — because if they’re not at your fingertips, you’re more likely to guess, and perhaps wrongly. (You noticed I used “so” didn’t you?) Or find that grammar maven who always seems to know the obscure rules. (That would be me.)
Brevity is more than the soul of wit. It is a tool for sharpening your ideas, prose and presentation. While not easy to achieve, it’s a welcome addition to any communication — and always appreciated by those you’re trying to reach.