Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher, once apologised for the length of a letter, saying that he had not had time to write a shorter one.
All of us face situations where we need to compress much information into little space. Perhaps we have to fill in an online form with a character limit or write a cover letter for a job application which sells our key skills and life experience in just a page or two. Or perhaps we are writing a mass email to colleagues which we want to stand a chance of actually being read. Yet many people fall prey to verbosity. They pile up facts rather than deploying them as weapons; their best thoughts are buried under the weight of futile phrases. One reads what they have written with a single thought hammering repeatedly in one’s head: Why are you telling me this?
But there is no need to fall into the trap of wasted words. Here are my tips for how to achieve verbal economy, whether you’re writing a PhD thesis or a text message to a friend.
- Be authoritative. Tell your readers what they need to know, not what you might ideally like them to know. Tell them also what they need to think about it.
- Save your readers time. If you are summarising a file of documents for them, you do not need to give them the experience of reading it themselves. Don’t use a piece of writing as a dumping ground for evidence; use the evidence sparingly to illustrate your argument.
- Pick your battles. You may need to prove some points laboriously, especially if the ground is controversial. But you can’t do this across the board. Work out where a blow-by-blow account is necessary and where a simple allusion will suffice.
- Don’t include details just because they are fun or interesting. If they don’t serve your argument or your story, they should go.
- Observe the 5% rule. Any text, whether it’s a 1,000-page novel or a tweet, can be reduced by 5% without serious sacrifice of meaning. In fact, the true percentage is probably higher …
The over-arching theme of my advice is prioritisation, in the service of the readers. Put yourself in their place – understand their needs, and don’t waste their time. And here’s a final tip: when you have run out of things to say, stop writing.
Feature image: Minimal pencils on yellow by Joanna Kosinska via Unsplash.