How to Become a More Concise Writer

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!

  1.  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’.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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!

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

Five Habits That Make Your Writing Look Unprofessional

Happy Friday, everyone!

I was talking to a friend yesterday about our writing habits – which of them are beneficial and which are not. While our discussion mainly revolved around our overall writing process, it made me think about the smaller habits I see in clients whose work I’m familiar with, and my own. Old habits die hard, goes the adage – and why? Because so often we don’t realize they’re there and though our well-intentioned friend the auto-checker tries its best, it frequently doesn’t catch them.

You’d be forgiven, after scanning the list below with bated breath, to not see a problem with many of them – what you may not realize is that these habits make your work sound dated, look unprofessional, and feel clunky, which are the absolute last things you want! Often it is the littlest of things that makes a reader question the authority of the writer, and even stop reading altogether. The more you can avoid these tell-tale signs of an unpracticed writer, the better.

  1. Capitalizing keywords unironically. (Not to be confused with typing in all caps.) Capital letters should only be used in specific instances – titles, proper nouns, and the beginning of sentences being the three main areas. No doubt you’ve seen them used as a stylistic choice, such as to make a webpage appear uniform (look at any of the button labels on most websites you regularly use) or as a tongue-in-cheek way to pretend something is more serious than it actually is (see if you can spot it in this post of mine). You’ll also see legal documents capitalizing important terms. However, too often I see the old habit of using them for emphasis in everyday writing, as though this technique were interchangeable with italics or bolding. It’s not. Don’t do it, folks – not only is it old-fashioned, untidy, and incorrect, but it smacks of poor marketing and is a sure-fire way to make your reader wonder if you’re trying to sell them something.
  2. A double space after every sentence. This is another common one. Instead of hitting that space bar once at the end of the sentence and starting another, it’s hit twice. While not incorrect, strictly-speaking, it can get distracting and is a clear indicator of the generation in which you learned to type (or the age of the person who taught you). Why? The practice of using the double-space after the end of a sentence began as a typesetter’s bad habit back in the advent of the printing press, which was originally straightened-out once conventions were developed during its rise to power. However, the reason you yourself may be guilty of this habit is whether you were introduced to typing via someone who regularly used a typewriter, wherein they may have found difficulty determining where a sentence ended due to the machine’s limitations; a double-space was used so that you could more easily tell that sentence was over. Thanks to modern computing, we don’t generally have that problem. Get rid of that second space.
  3. Bunny-ears. You may see them written doubly or singly, and you may know them by a less endearing name, but they’re there. Of course, there’s a time and a place for using quotation or speech marks – the problem arises when you use them too liberally and when it’s not really necessary. When that happens, when I’m reading all I can hear is an older person trying to be cool with the kids. On a more practical note, though, consider this: speech or quote marks are often used in this context to show that you’re quoting someone else, or that the sentiment or thought contained therein isn’t really yours. It’s a distancing tactic. Fine – sometimes it’s appropriate to do that. But when every other thought that you’re expressing carries this sign of uncertainty, I begin to doubt your confidence in what you’re saying. Not to mention it’s going to get confusing when you’re actually quoting someone or writing dialogue.
  4. Dated phrasings, particularly references to technological advancement that’s already happened. As an example, take one of my pet peeves: ‘In today’s world’. If you’re about to write about something that’s occurring now, just write it without introduction. We automatically assume it’s happening in the present without you needing to tell us. If you do, it makes you sound like you’re preaching from decades back. This is of course slightly different from archaisms – words and phrases that we don’t use anymore, such as ‘pray tell’ for ‘what is it?’.  If you’re uncertain whether you’re using a dated phrase, ask yourself if the sentence will still make sense without it, or if it’s stating the obvious. This involves understanding your intended audience.
  5. Multiple exclamation points, question marks, or over-use of ellipses. Conversely, this can also denote an immature writer. There is no reason to use more than one exclamation point or question mark. No excuses. Adding more will not make it more. Most of us rarely stray into that habit – more often I see the incorrect or over-use of the ellipsis (‘…’). More than a comma or dash, an ellipsis is used to slow the reader down. You may remember being introduced to it in school as a technique to create suspense. The problem lies…when you use it…too much… Then I don’t know…what you’re trying to lead me into thinking, or even…what you mean…sometimes…or even if you know… (You see what I mean?) It’s melodramatic, cluttering, and like too many bunny-ears leads me to think you’re not confident enough in what you’re saying.

Not sure about usage? Spotting these in your own work not your strong suit? That’s what your editor is for! Additionally, as you’ve noticed a lot of these have to do with punctuation; I’m aiming to explore each of the punctuation marks in their own ‘spotlight’ posts to help you get a better grip on them. Stay tuned.

What are some bad habits you can’t seem to shake? What are some of your pet writing or typing peeves?

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan