Short Texts. Write Concise Ones
by Philip Yaffe
"Don't write short texts.
Write concise ones." If you are puzzled by this admonition,
it is probably because you have been led to believe that "short"
and "concise" are synonyms. They aren’t. My dictionary
shows two definitions for "concise": 1. Brief and
to the point 2. Short and clear.
If "short" is already part of the definition of concise,
they cannot be synonyms. There must be a difference. So what is
it, and how does it affect your writing? Over my 40 years as a professional
writer, I have developed my own definition of "concise",
which makes the difference explicit. Moreover, it is functional.
It not only tells you what you are seeking to do, but also how to
go about doing it.
Before examining this functional definition, let's agree on what
we are trying to achieve by being concise.
It is commonly claimed that people today have shorter spans than
in the past, so text must also be shorter. I am unaware of any scientific
evidence that supports this contention. However, I am aware of considerable
historical and psychological evidence that disputes it.
People pay attention to texts that catch and hold their interest.
Once that interest wanes, they stop reading. It's as simple as that.
Whatever effect radio, television, films, the Web, etc. may have
had on average attention span, individual attention span is governed
by self-interest. This has always been true, and remains so. The
objective, therefore, is not to constrain a text to fit some artificial
limit, but to be certain that everything it says has purpose and
meaning for the reader. This is what makes a text concise, whatever
to the functional definition. For a text to be truly concise,
it must be:1. As long as necessary
2. As short as possible
the dictionary, "short" is only part of the
definition -- the second part. Before you set about
making your text "as short as possible", you
must first make it "as long as necessary".
In practical terms, this means that before you do anything
else, you must first determine the key ideas you want
your text to convey. Then identify all the supporting
information needed to make them clear and credible.
minimum text length is required to adequately cover
this vital information, this is how long it must be.
It makes no sense to look at your text and then start
cutting out important information because it seems to
be "too long".
Now, what is meant by "as short as possible"?
Keep in mind that nothing in a text is neutral. Anything
beyond the minimum length required to be "as long
as necessary" will not simply add a few unnecessary
words. Ultimately, it will affect reader comprehension.
Unconsciously, the reader will continually be asking
himself why those additional words are there; however,
since they are unnecessary, he will never get an answer.
The more often these unconscious questions are raised,
the more often there will be no answer. The reader will
become less and less confident that he understands what
he is reading. When he concludes that he doesn't understand
it (or considers it boring, which is the same thing
in disguise), he will stop reading. And your effort
will have been wasted
Remember: The length of a text and how well the reader
understands it are intimately linked. The purpose of writing
"as short as possible" is not to avoid too many
words (whatever that means) -- but to ensure clarity.
I have yet to see any list of writing tips that explicitly
states this fundamental principle. So let's state it again.
Conciseness means saying everything that needs to be said
in as few words as possible in order to ensure clarity. Now
that you understand the true purpose of all the various writing
tips and suggestions on offer, you are more likely to value
them and apply them the rigor they deserve. However, don't
be overly concerned about applying them when writing your
first draft. Every well-written text must go through at least
two distinct drafts.
This should be dedicated to inputting all the key ideas and
supporting information required to make the text "as
long as necessary". Write this first draft with minimal
concern about style, grammar, conciseness, etc. Concentrate
This should be dedicated to applying all the writing tips
you know to make the text "as short as possible"
to ensure that all the key ideas and supporting information
are presented clearly and persuasively.
In short: Write fast, edit slow.
Here are a few examples that show the significance difference
that understanding and applying these tips can truly make.
This is only a sampling. After reading these examples, go
back the various lists to look for other writing tips, which
you will read and appreciate more acutely than ever.
and Numbered Lists
Bullet points and numbered lists
are excellent ways of shortening a text while making it easier
to understand. You may have noticed that I have used this
technique several times in this article.
Use bullet points or numbered lists to highlight and explain
general statements. Bullet points or numbers that relate to
nothing have no value.
These are the four factors that led us to this decision:
-- Economic conditions are . . . .
-- Technical developments have. . . .
-- Government policy will. . . .
-- Social conditions are . . . .
Display data directly next to their reference. Data displayed
“respectively” requires the reader to stop and confirm the
correct order. This can cause confusion.
Poor : The CAC, DAX and AEX all fell during past three
months: -1.76%, -0.98% and -2.26% respectively
Better : The three indices that fell during the past
three months were: CAC (-1.76%), DAX (-0.98%), and AEX (-2.26%)
The word “respectively” almost always causes confusion. Delete
it from your vocabulary!
If you wish to use more than one term to mean the same thing,
be certain that you clearly inform your readers.
Poor : Atopic dermatitis is a common disease of infants
aged 0-2 years. About half of all infants with infantile eczema
will develop asthma before their fourth birthday.
Better : Atopic dermatitis (infantile eczema) is a
common disease of infants aged 0-2 years. About half of all
infants with infantile eczema will develop asthma before their
vs. Passive Voice
the active voice because it gives a clearer picture of what
is being described and is usually shorter. However, don't
be afraid to use the passive voice when need. After all, if
there were no real need for the passive voice in the language,
it wouldn't exist.
Active voice: Management approved the new product
Passive voice: The new product was approved by Management
for Emphasis Words
at the beginning and at the end of a sentence have stronger
emphasis than those in the middle. Therefore, put important
information in these key locations to aid reader understanding.
Poor : Astronomers hunting for evidence of life outside
of our solar system announced the discovery of a new class
of planets yesterday.
Better : Yesterday, astronomers hunting for evidence
of life outside of our solar system announced discovery of
a new class of planets.
Best : Astronomers hunting for evidence of life outside
of our solar system yesterday announced the discovery of a
new class of planets.
The national leaders met to discuss new trade relations
between their two countries in the Royal Palace.
Better : In the Royal Palace, the national leaders
met to discuss new trade relations between their two countries.
Best : The national leaders met in the Royal Palace
to discuss new trade relations between their two countries.
Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street
Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches
a course in good writing and good speaking in Brussels, Belgium.
His recently published book In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple
Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional
is available from Story Publishers in Ghent, Belgium (storypublishers.be)
and Amazon (amazon.com).
For further information, contact: Philip Yaffe, Brussels,
Belgium Email: [email protected]