Happy Friday, everyone!
I’m privileged to work with many different types of writing these days – I’ll be working on a novel one day, a thesis the next, then a poem, then vocational curriculum. The list goes on. One of the things they all have in common, though, is often a need for brevity.
You’ve got your audience’s attention – great! But you have to keep that attention. There’s debate over the average attention span and whether it’s shortening due to the rise of digital technology, but the point remains that you only have so much time to get your message across, even if your reader has settled down and is in for the long haul to listen to whatever you have to tell them. Brevity is still a virtue and it is one of the main areas a good editor will look for.
Here’s some easy ways for you to check the concision of your writing yourself!
- Read it aloud. Yes, you may feel silly at first, but reading your writing aloud will not only help identify awkward phrasing, but you’re more likely to notice when you’re being too wordy or have a ‘pet word’.
- When rereading your work, ask yourself as often as possible whether there’s a shorter way to say what you mean, or whether this sentence actually presents any new information. Be ruthless.
- Punctuation, conjunctions, and transitions not only help the flow of your writing, but allow you more flexibility in communicating your ideas. For example, instead of needing two fully-fleshed-out sentences a simple comma and conjunction tag-team may eliminate the need for five or six words or repeats of important terms.
- For some, character/word/page/time limits help. Those of you familiar with the ‘elevator pitch’ know this. If you impose a limit on yourself, your brain is likely to rise to the challenge and pare down what you want to say in order to fit that limit. It helps you determine what’s really important for the reader to know.
- Consider your audience and what they will actually want to hear. One of my pet peeves, for example, is a blog post containing a recipe I’m interested in, but which also contains two pages of context about the weather that day. While some may find this charming, I just want the recipe.
- Make a bullet-pointed list of your talking points. I use this strategy with non-fiction often, and you can use it before you write (e.g. – planning an essay) or when you’re editing and possibly rewriting. A similar tactic is after writing something once, cover it up and try to rewrite from memory – the stronger phrasings and main points will stick in your mind and you’ll be able to weed out the weaker.
- Avoid too many irrelevant anecdotes, ‘weasel words‘, unnecessary qualifiers (‘very tired’ versus ‘exhausted’), and the passive voice wherever possible.
Now, you may be thinking, “But Taegan, I’m writing a novel / thesis / non-fiction book about X; my reader wants to know as much as I can tell them on my subject.”
Yes, absolutely. Longer works do tend to be more lenient in the brevity department. However, here’s my rule of thumb: every word on that page needs to earn its keep, otherwise it is taking up valuable space where I could be talking about something new. It’s a similar concept to the Chinese proverb of ‘If the first words fail, ten thousand will then not avail’, in that if you let yourself ramble, your message weakens. Always choose quality over quantity.
Brevity will benefit: your pacing, the organization of your ideas, your meaning, the strength of your writing, and ultimately your readers.
Remember to use this advice in moderation, since you don’t want to obscure your meaning by cutting too much. For this reason, I often recommend writing all your thoughts out first and cutting back afterward.
Finally, also remember that this advice applies to all types of writing, from fiction to job postings to resumes to research articles to…
I’ll stop. Good luck, and remember you can always ask me if you have questions!