It’s interesting that, for all of the angst that comes with the task of writing, so many of us struggle to achieve a characteristic that is widely recognized as an indicator of good writing: brevity.
See, I did it right there—that first sentence is over 30 words long!
As hard as we find writing, we apparently find it even harder to hold ourselves back once we get going. But this challenge is just a natural part of the writing process. Our first tendency is often to write as we speak, and our speech usually contains far more words than are necessary. When we talk out loud, we don’t have the luxury of going back and editing ourselves. Words trail out of us as they will, hopefully with a point or two made somewhere.
Writing, of course, has a different approach and different goals. The conscientious writer takes the time to shape sentences that convey meaning and substance without excess baggage. There are piles of well-shared wisdom on the topic:
Pascal: “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
Strunk and White: “Vigorous writing is concise. 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. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
“That every word tell.” I’ve always loved that phrase. Try looking at your writing with that advice in your ear sometime. All the words that aren’t telling will pop up at you like dandelions.
So how do we inject brevity into our writing? Ironically, it’s much easier to be brief after you’ve given yourself permission to be wordy.
1. Get it all out there.
When you’re beginning a writing task, you get to let it all loose. Our first drafts usually contain far more words than we actually need, and this is perfectly fine. Very little writing would ever get done if we didn’t allow ourselves to write freely on the first try, without stopping to edit and running the risk of losing our train of thought.
2. Revise. Revise. Revise again.
Once you have a decent draft, it’s time to go back and revise. This is your chance to weed out all the unnecessary words and to replace the weaker constructs with stronger words and phrases—ones that tell. It can actually be fun to challenge yourself: can you say the same thing better and in fewer words? Most of the time, you absolutely can.
Brevity can hurt, but it matters
Helping clients achieve brevity in their communications is one of the best challenges of my job. The folks I work with are so passionate about what they’re doing—and so close to it—that they can have a hard time streamlining how they talk about it.
But the important thing for any writer to remember is we’re not writing for ourselves: we’re writing for an outside audience whose attention is a very limited and precious resource. Boiling down the message to its essence and learning what really resonates with our audience can be one of the most difficult, but ultimately most gratifying, parts of a writer’s journey. If you can get comfortable with using fewer words, your message will almost certainly pack a more powerful punch!