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Tips & Bits #35: Shortcuts to Keeping It Short and Sweet

Research conducted by the Radicati Group showed that corporate email traffic is substantial and on the rise: the average user sends 34 emails and receives 99 emails a day. At the same time, the average consumer is inundated with over 3000 messages a day from various media sources.

The lesson to be learned is this: keep your message short and it is more likely to be received and affect a response. This goal has been shared by great and small over the centuries:

“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
Blaise Pascal, mathematician and physicist

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”
Henry David Thoreau, writer and philosopher

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero, philosopher and statesman

“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher

“The more you say, the less people remember. The fewer the words, the greater the profit.”
François Fénelon, writer and theologian

“If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today.  If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.”
Mark Twain, writer

If you share this philosophy, and want to practice it in your writing, here are a few pointers that can help you pare down the paragraphs.

1. Know what you want to impart before you begin. Writing concisely requires thinking about your subject matter prior to approaching the keyboard.

2. Delete words that are redundant. Eliminate words that are not essential to your message. Use adverbs and adjectives sparingly. Substitute vague descriptions with a single precise word.

3. Organize words logically. When you order your words and sentences, redundancies stick out like sore thumbs. (Cut them off when you see them!)

4. Don’t try to tell it all at once. Entice your reader to follow a link rather than making them try to process everything you want to communicate in a single gulp.

5. Embed links into your copy. Stop using words that add no value such as Click Here.

6. Pretend you have to pay for each word. Unless you are being paid by the word, as was the practice in the time of Charles Dickens, there’s no need to be verbose.

7. Practice as much as possible. Summarizing is a brain-function that develops over time.

8. When it doubt, cut-and-paste.  If you’re not sure about a word or a section, move it to the end of your document. (You can always replace it if you have to, but you’ll probably discover it was superfluous.)

9. Assume your readers have too much to read. They will appreciate your brevity. And they’re more apt to understand and remember your message when the writing is lean and focused.

10. Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about your readers. Showing off your vocabulary and writing prowess is of no value to the average reader.


A short (and true) story on the value of brevity:

While it is Lincoln’s short speech that has gone down in history as one of the finest examples of public oratory, it was Edward Everett’s two-hour oration that was originally slated to be the "Gettysburg Address" that day. His 13,607-word oration may have been well received at the time, but Lincoln was able to summarize the war in just ten sentences. In just a few minutes, all 271 words of Lincoln’s script were spoken – and are still being memorized by school children to this very day.

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