Write Less, Say More: The Power Of Brevity

When it comes to great writing, less is more. But even if you're familiar with the mantra to "omit needless words" tightening your writing is harder that it looks. Which words should you omit? How can you write more clearly? Danny Rubin, a national news consultant and former television news reporter, demonstrates — with examples — the power of brevity.

Photo remixed from originals by Maksym Bondarchuk and Jo De Vulder (Shutterstock)

There is a common misconception when it comes to professional writing that is professional in nature that a person must write in a verbose manner to come across as intelligent.

I am sorry. Let me do that again.

People often make a mistake in thinking that writing long-winded sentences with big words makes them appear smart.

Actually, let me try this one more time.

You don't need to write a lot or use big words to sound smart.

Now, that's better.

Too often, people write sentences like the one at the top when they should choose version #3. The main culprit, in my view, is the loathsome uni essay. Only at uni are we forced to write an essay of a certain length. We develop strategies that balloon our paragraphs so we can fill out eight, 10 or 12 pages and pick up our gold stars on the way out.

In the real world, most people don't enjoy reading cover letters, resumes and presentations. It's extra work and burdensome. Worst of all, trying to write beyond our skill level screams "I'm in over my head."

When you write with brevity, you make your points quickly and shrewdly. You don't waste words and, in doing so, you don't waste a person's time. An employer or hiring manager, for instance, then sees you as sharp and courteous.

The secret to brevity (and, in turn, clarity) is something we are rarely taught growing up and may appear anathema to a professor of English lit:

Write like you are talking to a friend.

I don't mean write in internet jargon or shorthand. Whenever I am stuck on a sentence, I step back from the computer screen and ask myself, "OK, what am I trying to say here?" Rather than come up with the most eloquent way to make my point, I write it out in plain English as if talking to a buddy. And once I have my conversational sentence, then I go and attack it with a red pen.

Let's use the examples from the top.

The before:

There is a common misconception when it comes to writing that is professional in nature that a person must write in a verbose manner to come across as intelligent.

The after:

You don't need to write a lot or use big words to sound smart.

First things first, I switched the voice from passive to active (from "there is" to "you"). Always locate your subject and lead with it. Active voice feels confident; passive does not.

To write the shorter sentence (version 3), I literally sat up from my computer and asked, "What am I trying to say?" I stopped trying to be clever with it, and the words found their way onto the page.

I also have a habit of being very critical with the number of words I use in each sentence. Once I write something, I go back and decide if each and every word I just wrote deserves to be there. Say to yourself: if I remove this word, would the sentence still make sense? If I removed this sentence, would the paragraph make sense? And the ultimate: do I really need this paragraph?

Speed is key. When people read your cover letters and resume, you need to be very respectful of their time. Don't write five huge paragraphs that go on and on. Be tough on yourself and really give them just what they need to know. You are better off making one or two main points (or telling one great story) rather than trying to jam your entire life into an employer's brain.

And when you finish editing your work, go back and edit again. After that, go back and edit some more. A boss may never tell you he/she loved your cover letter or resume, but ones that are tightly written and well-composed will leave an impression.

Most of all, you will stand out. University does not prepare us very well for the process of job applications. But those who take it upon themselves to learn to harness the power of brevity will have an edge every time.

Danny Rubin is a national news consultant for media research firm Frank N Magid Associates. He is a former television news reporter, lives in Washington, DC and tweets as @dannyhrubin.

Article republished with permission from Brazen Life, a lifestyle and career blog for ambitious young professionals. Hosted by Brazen Careerist, Brazen Life offers edgy and fun ideas for navigating the changing world of work.


Comments

    It is interesting how different degrees at Uni force you to write differently. The difference between my arts degree (where I have to write 2000 words on a topic that only needs 500) and my Law degree (where I have to write 500 words on a topic that needs 2000) is quite startling.

      I agree there is a large difference. I'd also add that the worst legalese seems to happen when you take lawyers drilled to be concise and remove word and time limits.

    While I agree that the inability to write concisely is a growing problem, I am not sure how you conclude that the university essay is to blame. I have never had a lecturer ask, nor have I as a tutor and lecturer asked, for an essay of certain length to be padded out with unnecessary words. The purpose of an essay word limit is to give the student an indication of the depth of research and level of detail required for the answer.

    Simple, concise communication is king.

    I have taken to replying to many (mostly internal) emails now with TLDR... What are you saying ? What do you want/need ? - Thanks :-)

    Or at least put that info in the first sentence of the first paragraph... Then if you must write another 500 + words below with details and graphs and screen caps, so be it. At least I know in the first 15 seconds WHAT the email is about and WHAT you want me to do.

    I concur that university essays are not designed to increase word use. The article takes too long to say what Winston Churchil is credited with summarising: "I'm sorry this is so long. I do not have time to make it shorter." Editing is important and takes time. Your first draft is rarely any good.

    Finally, one should not write as one speaks. One does not read as one listens.

    Errr, check your references. Churchill didn't say that. Nor is the quote even correct.

    @Doug, you're right. Thank you. Blaise Pascal appears to have been the source and the exact wording may be in dispute: http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?TimeToMakeItShort

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