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Brevity Isn't Enough--You Need to Write - Take the Fat Out of Your Writing

Is your writing wobbly? Next time you take finger to word processor, think clarity, relevance, sincerity, concision and transparency.

A great deal has been written over the last few years about the need for brevity on the Web. Whether Web writing has improved as a result is debatable, but one thing is certain: the word has gotten out. These days one can't gather three people in a room to plan a Web site without someone's sounding off about the need for brevity.

That's a good thing. Our collective consciousness has been raised.

But there are at least two downsides to this Web-brevity mania. First, perhaps following Newton's third law, it has at times caused the opposite reaction in print. It is as if writers, reeling from the constraints imposed by the Web, can't help but pour forth in print. Second—and far worse—it has put the cart before the horse: brevity has begun to supersede clarity in importance in our eyes. Striving for brevity isn't enough. We need to write tight.

Clarity is far and away the most important attribute of tight writing. For if the purpose of writing is to communicate a particular message, then no matter how concise your writing, how impeccable your spelling and grammar, how interesting your topic—if what you've written isn't clear, you might as well have written it in a foreign language.

So how do you determine whether your writing is clear? Simple: let someone else read it—preferably someone from your target audience. Don't rely on your own intuition. Because you know what you meant to say, you'll likely be blind to any ambiguity that has crept in. What you meant to say doesn't matter—all that matters is what you wrote. Here's a sentence written by the CEO of a now-defunct Web-development company who relied on his own intuition to affirm its clarity:

Our method provides the flexible integration points required for working on complex system integration projects where effective deployment and engagement with specialized vendors is critical.

Had he asked others to read this before he published it, perhaps someone would have told him it was a mess of corporate blather. But he didn't. He knew what he meant, and that was good enough for him.

The accuracy of your writing can spell the difference between success and failure. Overlooked mistakes can have far-reaching consequences ranging from a reputation for carelessness to the financial ruin of your company.

Because copyediting requires a strong command of English grammar and usage, which are constantly evolving, it's best to hire a professional copyeditor. Whoever reviews your writing should understand that a mistake in a phone number is far more serious than a misspelled word or an extra space. If you have to proof your own work, here's how to minimize oversights:

  • Shut your door, turn off your phone and computer monitor, and take your time. Rushing through copy is like vacuuming too fast: you miss stuff.
  • Don't try to find every mistake in one reading. First concentrate on mechanics—spelling, punctuation, and spacing. Then review for meaning, looking for ambiguities and gaps in logic.
  • Proof all display copy, such as headers or text in all caps, separately. It may be counterintuitive, but mistakes in larger type are easier to overlook. If there's an outline or a table of contents, proof it separately also.
  • Finally, proof your corrections.

To be effective, text needs to be relevant. Relevant text accomplishes two goals: it speaks directly to the readers and it relates directly to the topic. To write relevant text, then, you must understand your readers. Try to envision them as real people with specific needs, objectives, and preferences. And make sure that all the information relates directly to the topic. If you're writing about a product, write about the product—what it is and what it does. Don't waste readers' time with claims about how the product will change their lives; such writing is rarely relevant and usually comes across as insincere hype.

Brevity has begun to supersede clarity in importance in our eyes.
—Kathy Henning

Which brings me to my next point: Sincerity.

"The secret of success," said the French novelist, essayist, and dramatist Jean Giraudoux, "is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made." Though Giraudoux was being humorous, he touched on a fundamental truth about writing—that sincerity, or at least the appearance of sincerity, is crucial. Nothing alienates readers faster than insincerity in any form—hyperbole, hype, hypocrisy, untruth. Don't make the mistake of underestimating your readers' ability to recognize insincerity. Write honestly.

In The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White tell us to "omit needless words." It's good, oftquoted advice, except that "omit" is the wrong word. It should be "delete" or "strike out." Writing concisely isn't about leaving out unnecessary words as you write. It's about deleting unnecessary words as you rewrite—that is, after you've written.

It's not as easy as it sounds. Writing concisely takes considerably more time and effort than not writing concisely. You must consider every word, asking yourself whether it needs to be there. Can you substitute one word for several? Eliminate an entire sentence, paragraph, even section? Replace an unnecessarily long word with a shorter word?

Don't try to eliminate every needless word in one pass, and, more important, never sacrifice clarity by cutting too much—far better not to cut enough but remain clear! Always proof after cutting.

Writing concisely takes considerably more time and effort than not writing concisely.
—Kathy Henning

Writing transparently means remaining nearly invisible so that the reader notices the message, not the messenger. No writer can remain completely invisible—simply by choosing the words you choose and putting them in a certain order, you reveal something about yourself. But what I mean by transparent writing is writing that doesn't "show off," writing that steers clear of pretense.

For most writers, achieving transparency is difficult. At times we're all tempted to write copy that calls attention to itself, that says, "See what a great writer I am!" or "See how much I know!"

But we must not give in! If we do, we risk failing to communicate our message. Here are six steps to greater transparency in your writing:

  1. Focus on the reader's viewpoint, not your own.
  2. Focus on the message, not on impressing your readers.
  3. Strive for clarity, relevance, and concision, and transparency will follow.
  4. Lean toward understatement; avoid hyperbole.
  5. Reread your writing for language that shows off.
  6. Have someone else read your writing for language that shows off.

Consistency's reputation has suffered over the years, and consistency has lost its rightful place among the qualities of good writing. This is the result, I believe, of two phenomena. First is a misquoting of Ralph Waldo Emerson's statement "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Over time, "A foolish" got left off so often that people forgot it had ever been there.

Second, misguided English teachers have taught us to avoid repetition. "Never use the same word twice," they say. "Find a synonym."

But if we want to write tight, we must put this advice behind us and embrace repetition. It's a powerful tool, used by poets and orators alike to powerful effect. Furthermore, if you use two different words to mean the same thing, clarity comes into jeopardy. When you mean the same thing, use the same word. It's that simple.

Reprinted with permission from "Brevity Isn't Enough," Harvard Management Communication Letter, February 2003.

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Kathy Henning is a Seattle-based writer and teacher, as well as the managing editor of CommunicationFitness, an online instructional resource for schools, nonprofits, and businesses. She can be reached at hmcl@hbsp.harvard.edu.

How to Write Tight in a Nutshell

  1. Understand that tight writing doesn't just happen.
  2. Don't try to write tight on the first draft. The first draft is for organizing what you want to say and putting it roughly into words. Tightening comes in subsequent drafts.
  3. Plan to revise at least three times.
  4. Have someone else read what you've written to point out ambiguity or suggest cuts.
  5. Understand that tighter is always better, but shorter isn't always better. Remember that clarity is always more important than brevity.

Reprinted with permission from "Brevity Isn't Enough," Harvard Management Communication Letter, February 2003.