Everyone understands the need to be brief.
Attention spans are dwindling. We’re bombarded by messages (around 5,000 promotional messages and 120 work-related emails a day). And we’re not that keen on reading any more. A big chunk of text will send us hot-footing it to the next email, hoping it has fewer words.
What’s more, comprehension drops dramatically as sentences get longer. According to the American Press Institute, when the average sentence length is 14 words, readers understand more than 90% of a piece of text. At 43 words, comprehension drops to less than 10%.
In other words, the more you write, the less people understand. So if you want to be heard, you need to say what you have to say simply, clearly and quickly.
So far, so good. But it turns out brevity is an art form and writing short sentences isn’t always easy to do. In fact, it’s the number-one challenge our learners report.
If you find yourself bogged down in a stream of words, here are 5 tips to help you cut that wordcount.
- Use everyday words and simple structures
Most of us learnt to write at school, for academic purposes. Long, complex sentences and big words were the norm. And many of us still believe that’s the way we should write. We think it makes us sound more intelligent. The problem is those long sentences and big words actually get in the way of clarity. Have a look at these examples:
The entire cohort agreed to the postponement of the launch.
Everyone agreed to delay the launch.
Should you have any comments or queries, feel free to contact me.
Let me know if you have any questions.
I think we can agree that the second option in each pair is shorter and easier to read and understand. However, writing like your history professor can be a surprisingly hard habit to break. Like everything in life, writing short sentences comes with practice.
To get you started down the right path, try reading your sentences out loud. Imagine you’re talking to a friend or colleague. Does your sentence sound natural? If not, try again. Write more or less as you speak and watch those sentences shrink.
- Speak directly to your reader
Speaking directly to your reader has a double benefit. Firstly, it’s more engaging. We all love the attention of being addressed directly. We positively light up on hearing the word ‘you’! Secondly, direct speech can shave off words, helping you write shorter sentences.
Have a look at the following:
Visitors will receive a pass at the entrance.
You’ll receive a pass at the entrance.
All applicants are asked to submit…
- Use the active voice
Nothing drags down a piece of writing and adds bulk quite like the passive voice. On the other hand, the active voice uses fewer words, is more readable and packs a more powerful punch.
It’s the difference between the succinct drama of…
The intern ate the last biscuit.
… and the footnote in a report to HR
The last biscuit was eaten by the intern.
- Remove words that add nothing
An astounding number of useless words make their way into writing. Sometimes they’re good, hardworking words in and of themselves. They just become useless when there’s already another word in the sentence doing the same job. Have a look at this example:
Candidates will have to meet several necessary requirements.
Being necessary is already built into being a requirement. We don’t need to say it twice.
Then there are the outright layabouts – words that do nothing but take up space. Here are a few common culprits:
That – If a sentence still makes sense after removing ‘that’, take it out.
Really, very – These modifiers add nothing.
Essentially – Nothing at all…
- Cut long sentences in two!
Sometimes it really is that simple. Particularly long sentence? It may just be better off as two short ones. Sometimes, a little tweaking is required. Sometimes it’s as easy as turning a comma into a full stop.
Have a look at the examples below:
I am responsible for producing in-depth performance summaries for all the management trainees and consolidating them to produce an overview for the programme lead in the US.
This sentence has 27 words in it, putting it firmly in the danger zone. The sentence is relatively simple in terms of structure and vocabulary. It’s just too long! Readers might lose their train of thought before reaching the end. So let’s cut it up…
I am responsible for producing in-depth performance summaries for all the management trainees. I also consolidate them to produce an overview for the programme lead in the US.
We love this quote from US Founding Father Thomas Jefferson.
“The most valuable of all talents is never using two words when one will do.”
A powerful rule to live by.