General Question

albert_e's avatar

How to be concise?

Asked by albert_e (529points) August 15th, 2010

I have a tendency to compose very long, formal mails – which I guess most recipients don’t even read!

How can I improve my writing skills – to be more concise and still convey all that I want to?


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20 Answers

zophu's avatar

Pretend you are writing something that you will have to speak to a crowd.

Austinlad's avatar

I work with my staff on this constantly. I advise them to avoid emailing messages to co-workers that can’t be said in person, but when you have to, use short bullets to make your points, and always re-read and proof the message before hitting Send. Remember that your recipient isn’t sitting there waiting for your email; usually, it’s little more an intrusion into his or her busy day. So say what you have to without emotion, embellishment and unnecessary words. And NEVER start or get dragged in a debate via email. Words written in haste or emotion can be too easy misinterpreted.

One person on my staff used to write unbearably long emails filled with unnecessary asides, bad punctuation, misspellings and repeated points. I started editing them and returning to him (once, I cut four long paragraphs down to one short one!) and over time he improved by editing himself. Believe me, if he could you it, YOU can.

augustlan's avatar

I have the same problem with formality (if not length).when I realize I’m coming off too formally for a casual message, I have a friend read it. She’s good at getting at the essence of the message and suggesting wording that doesn’t make me sound like such a stick in the mud. :)

janbb's avatar

“Write as if each word cost you a shilling.” – James Joyce

gasman's avatar

“Eschew obfuscation.” ~

Jeruba's avatar

Be clear in your own mind on the purpose of your message: to deliver a piece of information, to report on status, to offer an opinion, to persuade, to make a request, whatever. Focus on what serves that purpose and let the rest go.

Cover only one major topic in a given message, and make sure the subject line reflects that. Save other topics for other messages.

Avoid explaining anything that isn’t essential to an understanding of the message.

Offer further details on request rather than supplying them all.

Don’t indulge in self-justification.

Don’t show off.

Don’t say anything that needs to be said in parentheses.

Avoid complex sentence structure as much as you can while still making your point.

Break up long paragraphs. Use bullets where you can.

Don’t serve a hidden agenda unless you can do it with careful word choice as opposed to added verbiage.

Writing concisely does take longer if you’re naturally verbose. But you can probably reduce your word count by at least one-third without significant loss. The payoff is a message that gets read rather than just skimmed or ignored and trashed.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Make an outline of what you want to communicate before you start writing.

Organize your key points so they will have the most impact.

Make each sentence cover one complete thought that needs to be presented.

Read your final message out loud as if you were speaking to an audience.

Make sure the ideas are clearly expressed and logically link up with each other so that your main point emerges and holds together well.

CMaz's avatar

Cut out the middle.

wundayatta's avatar

Don’t ask me. ;-)

lapilofu's avatar

I always write a long missive first and then read through it several times, cutting words and sentences each time.

brotherhume's avatar

You could follow Steve Jobs’ bad example and answer everything in one sentence (for example the answer to this question: “Just talk less”).

Or some better advice: I read once that the best emails have very good subject lines that explain a lot even before the email is opened.

zenele's avatar

It aint easy – Mark Twain the late great one comes to mind:

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

josie's avatar

You can learn how by reading Hemingway.

whatthefluther's avatar

@janbb….Didn’t Joyce once hold the record for longest sentence in English literature at some 4000+ words.? If that sentence (in Ulysses , I believe), is concise, it must be very powerful, or he had lots of spare shillings! See ya…..Gary/wtf

janbb's avatar

@gary I think he wrote it when he was very rich. :-) Love ya

whatthefluther's avatar

As for me personally, I suppose I should say see @wundayatta, above but his responses usually describe a very complex emotion or thought and I, for one, never find those verbose. I, on the other hand, can take a yes/no question or even the most mundane subject and bleed it to death with words. At my former job, however, I was a master at bullet presentation and soft spoken with carefully chosen words. Why I am unable to do the same here at fluther is anyone’s guess, yet I suppose it has much to do with either laziness or these pockets full of heavy shillings. See ya…..Gary/wtf

lifeflame's avatar

Ah – I have to teach this to my students constantly.

Technically/grammatically speaking, are some good links on “writing concisely”.
Purdue online writing lab (see also the items on the left)
University of Texas writing lab

They basically suggest using active instead of passive voice; eliminating repetitive + vague verbs, etc.

Here’s also an exercise you can do. As people have suggested, bullet points also really help.

YARNLADY's avatar

Pay a professional.

Jeruba's avatar

I’m all for paying a professional for what a professional can do, @YARNLADY, so thanks for the plug for my profession. But that’s not a practical answer for how to be a better communicator on a daily basis in the workplace and with informal (and formal) e-mail correspondence.

The short version of my advice would be simply this: awareness, focus, and practice.

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