For some reason there has been a lot of chat recently online about how to write concisely. “Cut The Crap And Keep It Simple, Stupid” screamed one headline. “Chop The Dead Wood Out Of Your Writing,” yelled another. “No More Long-Winded Text: This Is The 21st Century,” bellowed a third. OK, we get the message, and that’s fair enough. But writing concisely is not as easy as you would imagine; in fact it’s a damned sight harder than “waffling” at length.
And this is nothing new. In more than one comment I’ve added to other folks’ blogs recently on this topic, I have quoted a sentence purportedly written by the 17th century French physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal which goes (approximately) “I’m sorry to write you a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write you a short one.”
Not only has this phrase been attributed to Pascal but also to Samuel Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, plus a few. Were they trying to cash in on what whoever had said before? Unlikely. They probably discovered the truth in that themselves, the hard way.
So what about the Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) concept?
The concept reflects a harsh reality; writing sharp, short text is much harder than writing lengthy text that rambles on for pages, but is much more effective at getting a message over – whether it’s for business, social, personal or other purposes. And in our present age when bite-sized communications of as few as 140 characters are increasingly de rigueur, the need for concise writing is greater than ever.
Pretty well every professional writer in the world will have his or her own tips on how you can achieve that without driving yourself to industrial-strength Prozac, and I would love any pro writers reading this to share their tips if I haven’t covered the points already, please! In the meantime…
- Think through what you’re going write very carefully – not just what you want to say, but also what you want your reader to understand. Focus on that when you’re writing.
- Massachusetts-based author John Butman once said, “if you don’t know what you think, you can’t write it down,” so make sure you do know what you think before you write anything – it will save you a lot of tedious editing time.
- Use a skeleton plan to work out the structure of your text. It’s much easier to play around with a few bullet points than it is with several hundred words. Get the flow of your message or story right in the skeleton and you’ll find it much easier to stick to the point.
- After each few sentences or so, stop and read them back. Ask yourself, is that what I really mean? Or have I deviated from the skeleton? If you have, go back and rework them before continuing, or you’ll find your whole piece wanders off into oblivion.
- Don’t fall into the trap of trying to use long words to make your text look more sophisticated. It won’t. It will just make it look pompous and boring. And avoid all the current clichés that make readers wince.
- Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. More than the odd one or two here and there clutters up your text and usually achieves little. Use powerful verbs to get your meaning over – e.g. “he tore down the road,” not “he ran very quickly down the road.”
- If you use metaphors and similes, make them short and sharp – don’t labour them, e.g. “the diamond exploded fiery light,” not “the diamond sparkled so brightly that its light was like fire.”
- Nick Usborne, a copywriter from Montréal, once came up with an idea that’s worked for me ever since. When you’ve finished your first draft text, try removing the first paragraph. Often you’ll find you used that to “warm up” and only got to the point in paragraph two.
- Be cruel and edit your text to within an inch of its life. I know, it’s heart-breaking to see all those words you sweated over being chopped away, but readers will get what you want them to understand a lot faster if you strip out all but the truly necessary information.
- Finally, go back to point #1 here and recall what you want your reader to understand. Will he or she understand? That’s the acid test. If you’re not sure, ask someone else to read your text and tell you what they understand – or not. Then make any necessary alterations.
Any more tips? Or questions? Please comment!
More help to make your writing simply successful:
“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write
“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English
“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English