Six Simple Ways to Whittle Your Words – Less is More

Welcome to the world of short bursts. Business writing has changed. We text, we instant message, we tweet. Communication now demands conciseness. Let’s face it, no one really reads that lengthy email or overly verbose document. Don’t even get me started on PowerPoint documents filled with text.

This is a major shift for many of us. The bigger the words, the more flowery the sentence, the smarter we sound, right? Maybe … if your objective is to communicate in 19th century prose.

The goal of business writing is to ensure your message is read, understood and/or acted upon. At the end of the day, your audience is more likely to read and act on your request if they don’t have to re-read a 500 word email 3 times to understand the call to action.

If you are struggling to whittle down your words:

  1. Ask yourself “What’s the headline?” Before you begin writing, boil your message down to one phrase. Start here because if you can’t articulate it in a sentence or less, your writing will reflect the disorganization in your brain.
  2. Track your word count. It’s amazing how quickly the words add up.  Get into the habit of challenging yourself to reduce your word count on every communication.
  3. Make friends with bullets. A list of short, pleasantly aligned, non-complete sentences are easy on the eyeballs. Use them when you can.
  4. Beware of the three page email. If your email requires a long explanation, you probably need to talk to the recipient – voice-to-voice. You will save yourself time and confusion.
  5. Plan to edit. It takes time to cut, shorten, rearrange. In fact, if you find it takes more time to edit than to develop your draft … excellent! You’re doing it right.
  6. Tweet. Creating well formulated tweets is a great way to practice succinctness. You’ll be surprised how your idea can pack a punch in 140 characters or less.

When I find myself bogged down in wordiness, I pretend I am a student in Jason Fried’s ultimate writing class.  In this course, Fried, co-founder of the software company 37signals, and co-author of the book Rework, imagines:

Every assignment would be delivered in five versions: A three page version, a one page version, a three paragraph version, a one paragraph version, and a one sentence version. Along the way you’d trade detail for brevity. Hopefully adding clarity at each point. This is important because I believe editing is an essential skill that is often overlooked and underappreciated. The future belongs to the best editors.

There’s always fat to be cut. Keep trimming away!

Marta Steele is a Partner at PeopleResults.  She can be reached on Twitter @MartaSteele.