9 steps to more concise business writing
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
In today's world of ultratasking and information overload, being concise is more important than ever. Whether reading a short email or 500-page business proposal, your audience typically doesn't have the time or desire to search for information.
They don't want to read six lines for what could have been said in six words, and they don't want to decipher meaning. They want to get in, get information and get out. If they can't, your message is lost.
So I'm taking a cue from one of my favorite TV shows, the Food Network's "Chopped" (warning: the show is addictive), and listing the top words or phrases you should chop from your business writing. On to the list!
Circum-what? Circumlocutions are roundabout expressions that add extra words without extra meaning. For instance, I could say that I have the ability to do a handstand (not really), but it is better to say that I can do a handstand. One word instead of four. Chop, chop, chop.
Seems easy, but using these phrases is a hard habit to shake. Just remember — when reviewing your writing, see if any phrases can be replaced with must, should, because, since, why, can, when, about, may, might or could. Clear, simple words. Use them.
Roundabout: On the occasion of … (4 words), In a situation in which … (4 words), Under circumstances in which … (4 words)
Concise: When… (1 word)
2. Words Providing Needless Detail
There is no reason to write what is already obvious to the reader. Unfortunately, some people become word machines when they're behind a keyboard. Extra information is everywhere, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps they’re defaulting to the "quantity means quality" mindset, thinking their message will seem more credible or substantive. Or maybe they just like typing. Either way, they should stop.
Needless: It goes without saying that we are acquainted with your invoicing policies, and we have every intention of complying with the regulations you have outlined. (25 words)
Concise: We will comply with the invoicing policies you outlined. (9 words)
3. Unnecessary Modifiers
These are words or phrases that aren't merely obvious or excessive, they're useless. They're also extremely common. Think about it: How often do you use words like kind of, sort of, type of, really, basically, actually, generally, specific or particular in a sentence? A lot, right? Me too! Often these words serve no purpose other than as filler. Chop 'em!
Unnecessary: Our company can work with any particular kind of desktop publishing software. (12 words)
Concise: Our company can work with any desktop publishing software. (9 words)
4. Unnecessary Modifying Phrases or Clauses
Unlike the modifiers above, some modifying phrases or clauses serve a purpose — just not concisely. To the chopping block!
First, find any clauses beginning with that, who or which, and see if they can be converted into phrases or single words. For example, the proposal that was submitted recently can be shortened to the recently submitted proposal. Chop, chop.
Next, find any phrases that can be converted to single words or adjectives. For example, the writer with skills can be changed to the skilled writer. Chop. Finding and fixing these phrases takes some practice, but it can make a big difference in the power of your messaging.
Unnecessary: All applicants who are interested in the job must… (9 words)
Concise: All job applicants must… (4 words)
Unnecessary: John Smith, your editor, will ensure complete satisfaction. (8 words)
Concise: Editor John Smith will ensure complete satisfaction. (7 words)
5. Redundant Pairs and Categories
When two words imply each other or a specific word implies its general category, why write both? There is no good reason, yet I see these everywhere in marketing literature and website content (I've been guilty myself).
For redundant pairs (e.g., completely finish, basic fundamentals), drop the adjective or adverb to make it more concise. For redundant categories (e.g., large in size, honest in character), the first word is usually all that is needed.
Redundant: unexpected surprise, past history, important essentials, final outcome, end result, future plans, often times, unusual in nature, round in shape
Concise: surprise, history, essentials, outcome, result, plans, often, unusual, round
6. Overused Noun Forms of Verbs
Known as nominalizations to grammar folk, these nouns are often overused by business professionals who want to sound important or official. News flash: It doesn’t work. Instead, it undercuts persuasive writing and begs the reader to lose interest.
The reason is twofold. First, when a sentence's main verb is turned into a nominalization, it must be substituted with another verb. Unfortunately, that verb is typically a form of be — consummate winner of the "least engaging verb" award. Second, it creates wordiness without adding meaning. Chop!
Overused: The function of that team is the editing of websites. (10 words)
Concise: That team edits websites. (4 words)
7. Overused Expletives
No, not those expletives. We're talking about phrases structured as it + be-verb or there + be-verb. Like nominalizations, expletives add wordiness and use an uninspired be-verb as the sentence's main verb. Not good.
Luckily, they’re easy to spot; expletives are typically followed by a noun and relative clause beginning with that, who or which (e.g., There are two rules that will be followed.). To fix it, chop the expletive (Two rules will be followed.), pause to appreciate your genius and move on.
Excessive: It is imperative that we finish the project within 24 to 48 hours. (13 words)
Concise: We must finish the project within 24 to 48 hours. (10 words)
8. Unnecessary Infinitive Phrases
Add this one to the "action words are better than be-verbs" principle of conciseness. Infinitive phrases have a to + verb structure, and they usually result in sentences having a be-verb as the main verb. They can also add heaps of message-killing wordiness. Fortunately, most can be easily changed into noun phrases or finite verbs.
For instance, in the example below, you can convert the infinitives to identify and to correct to the finite verbs identifies and corrects. With a few keyboard clicks, you've created action verbs, chopped the be-verb as the main verb, and halved the sentence length. High five!
Unnecessary: The duty of a proofreader is to identify mistakes and to correct them. (13 words)
Concise: A proofreader identifies and corrects mistakes. (6 words)
9. Repetitive Wording
This last one is a bit of a catch-all, but as I mentioned in the opening, few things frustrate a busy customer, prospect or colleague more than having their time wasted. Don't do it. When you review your writing, ask yourself what purpose each word or phrase has. If two words or phrases have the same general purpose, chopping one will likely strengthen the overall sentence.
Repetitive: We recruit writers who have recent, relevant experience working for similar companies on projects or initiatives in similar industries. Then we perform thorough interview procedures to evaluate their qualifications and determine if their skills and experience are a good fit for our company. (43 words)
Concise: We recruit writers who have recent, relevant experience, and then thoroughly interview them. (13 words)
A Note About Concise Writing
While the examples above focus on the value of eliminating words, remember that concise writing is not necessarily about having the fewest words. It is about having the strongest and clearest words.
My point: Don’t just chop for the sake of chopping. Ask yourself how much each word or phrase is accomplishing, and let that determine what is on the chopping block. Have fun!
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