In the course of my work, I speak with representatives from dozens of companies. By and large, these are very clever people but many seem to have forgotten one basic truth. Clear communication is about imparting useful information with the fewest words. That doesn't mean simplifying things to the point where they are meaningless. But it does mean choosing words carefully, and not babbling and over-using jargon.
An interesting post on Medium highlights this issue when it comes to how companies describe themselves online. The author, Kasper Kubica, mentions several companies whose websites are almost unintelligible.
I'm not sure why companies do this. Perhaps it's part of their SEO strategy as they try to fill their websites with words that are likely to help them appear higher in search results. Or, and this is more likely I think, they feel that a short statement, of just a sentence or two, makes them seem less significant.
Most days, I spend about two hours reading news and general interest material. And I'm finding there is more and more content being produced that is probably twice as long as it needs to be.
If you are looking for advice on how to write more streamlined copy, I suggest two books to help you out. I read both of these each year as a reminder.
One is an old book, first published almost 100 years ago but since revised several times. "The Elements of Style" was written by university professor William Strunk Jr and his student EB White (the author of Charlotte's Web). It's barely 100 pages long and you can read it in a few hours.
It covers common grammatical errors, misspellings and offers what I think is the most important piece of advice for any writer - "omit needless words".
The other book is Stephen King's "On Writing". This is King's take on how to become a good writer. It's an interesting read as, rather than being a technical manual on the craft of writing, it's a memoir covering key events in his life as a writer and what he learned along the way. It includes practical examples on editing and plenty of advice that doesn't require that you know the technical rules of grammar.
One other piece of advice comes from science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle. Although his essay on "How to get my job" is a little dated now the most important piece of advice he gives is to write a lot. He suggested that it takes about two million words to become a competent writer.
The things I most focus on in my writing are
- The word "that". It is almost always redundant in sentences. When I proof-read my work and I see "that", I re-read the sentence and if it makes sense without "that" I dump it.
- Kill the adverbs. This comes from Stephen King's book. If I use an adverb, I look for a better word. For example, instead of saying "ran quickly", I'd change it to "sprinted".
- It's ok to break your primary school teacher's grammar rules. Remember those rules you were taught as a kid? Things like never starting a sentence with "And" or "But". It's OK to break those rules, as long as they make sense to break.
- I really like commas. I over-use commas when I write. I think it comes from using them as a reflex when I pause to think as I write. So, when I edit, I end up removing a bunch of the little buggers.
- Avoid run-on sentences. You've probably read paragraphs where the writer has forgotten to use a full-stop so they've kept on writing, piling idea on top of idea, with no thought to adding a full-stop and starting another sentence because their stream of consciousness style means commas are far better for separating ideas rather than using a full-stop to let the read catch their breath and... You get the point
While it's true not everyone can be a best selling author and has the skill to be the next JK Rowling, everyone can be a competent writer. It takes some effort but the results will be worthwhile for your customers, your colleagues and for you.