Writing Less, Not More
A question that faces all wordsmiths is how much to write about a subject. In the absence of a fixed word count, or at least a template, and without the spatial constraints imposed by paper-based communications, we are left to draw our own boundaries. And more often than not, they are too generous. Yes, we sometime write less than circumstances warrant, but most writers generate too many words for the comfort of their readers, not too few. There are several reasons why writing with restraint is more challenging than writing with abandon, reasons that must be acknowledged if we hope to be succinct. Here are four culprits:
- We generally know more and care more about our subject than our readers do, which puts us at a cognitive disadvantage when deciding what should be communicated. We may try to separate the wheat from the chaff, but our definition of each is likely to differ from that of others, who are less invested in our topic and more concerned with takeaways than inputs. This phenomenon has been called the “curse of knowledge,” and only by placing ourselves in our readers’ shoes and gauging their capacities and needs can we hope to overcome it.
- Quality and quantity are often conflated, as if a five-page report were inherently superior to a two-page one. But briefer is often better in terms of messaging, increasing the odds that our content will be absorbed and retained. We must shake off the legacy of the schoolroom, where a good grade was often contingent on submitting a specific number of pages, and embrace a different question: does my communication give my readers what they need to respond in an informed and constructive way? If the answer is “yes,” our work is done.
- Paradoxically, it is harder to craft a short document than a long one. It is often arduous to distill or synthesize a topic, just as streamlining sentences by eliminating wordy constructions takes effort. We must remind ourselves that in most situations, our audience expects us to be filters, not simply conduits, of information and that the labor we invest in writing concisely can save our readers, who often greatly outnumber us, valuable time.
- A desire to omit no information that could be useful to our readers prompts many writers to encumber their work with nonessential details. Thoroughness is a virtue, but if taken to extremes, it can clog the wheels of communication. When addressing a broad audience, we should ask ourselves what will serve our average reader well, easing our conscience by inviting anyone wishing to know more to contact us or by directing these individuals to additional resources.
In short, to be effective writers, we must cultivate our briefer angels, putting our readers first by confronting the sources of our wordiness. As Strunk and White declared: “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”