Writing Secret #5: Be brief. Be clear. Be yourself.

Writing Secret #5: Be brief. Be clear. Be yourself.

Our attention spans have shrunk, and most of the business documents you write should be downsized to match.

Look at the stories in newspapers like USA Today. Most run about 300-500 words – not 3,000. Likewise, television delivers fast-paced, tightly-edited commercials, programs and videos.

It’s true in the workplace, too. Welcome to Planet A.D.D. Everybody is busy, multi-tasking, struggling to keep up. Few people have the patience to plod through long, verbose documents anymore – even your employees. (Maybe especially your employees!) Don’t aggravate the situation.

A few suggestions:

When in doubt, leave it out. Don’t try to cover everything in a single document. Keep the focus narrow, laser-like. Don’t chatter.

Be ruthless in cutting anything not directly relevant to your main points. Franklin Roosevelt, one of the great orators of his day, explained his secret of giving a great speech: “Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated.” (PowerPoint presenters: please take the hint.)

Use clear, simple language. Write the way you talk (without completely slaughtering the rules of grammar). Everything can and should be presented in clear, simple language.

For example, which of the following sentences do you think is more effective?

Version 1:

Intricate, obtuse ramblings, heavily laden with impenetrable jargon, combined with elongated and often perplexing sentence structure, neither persuade nor facilitate effective data transfer.

Version 2:

Big words and long sentences are hard to understand.

The tortured syntax of the first version is more than twice as long — and ten times harder to understand! So jettison the jargon and fancy words whenever you can. Use what newscaster Paul Harvey – a terrific communicator – calls simple, “shirtsleeve English”.

Other writing tips:

  • Simple, declarative sentences get your point across clearly and concisely.
  • Use the active voice, not passive.
  • Go easy on the adjectives and adverbs. Choose the right noun or verb instead. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner.

Remember, your goal is to communicate, to make your point – not win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

  1. Brian CarrBrian Carr03-20-2006

    What a great post. Far too often I’ve found myself writing too many words, filling space with large words in the hopes of impressing the reader when simple and direct statements would probably serve me better!

  2. Tom McKayTom McKay03-20-2006

    Thanks, Brian, I’m glad it helped.

    I just visited your blog and see you’re starting a business – excellent! I’m a big fan of small businesses. I’ll be interested to follow you on your journey, via your blog. Just don’t get too hung up on over-analyzing things. There’s no substitute for action! If you go off-course, you’ll probably know it quickly and can get yourself back on-course.

    Nice to meet you, Brian. And if I can ever help with advice or your marketing materials, just drop me a note!


  3. Brian CarrBrian Carr03-21-2006


    Thanks for the reply, I’ll be sure to keep you posted. My business partner and I are meeting with our lawyer next week to finalize our business name and I hope to have a “grand announcement” shortly after.

    After reading some more of your posts I would like to add your link to my list of resources, if that is okay with you.


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