Less is More: Writing Concisely Gets The Job Done

By Blue Star Design / 04 Aug 2017


Nike doesn’t advise athletic shoe buyers to “consider all your options carefully and make the optimal choice within the most expedient time frame.”

They say, “Just do it.”

Back in 1970, Coca-Cola didn’t describe its feature product as a “genuinely refreshing beverage experience.”

They said, “It’s the real thing.”

Granted, advertising taglines are brief by definition. However, great taglines tell us something that gets lost in longer-form content writing: wasted words get in the way of connecting with our audience.

How do we write tighter? Try these tips: 

Get rid of redundancies

Redundant words can be cut without changing the meaning of a sentence.

Classic example: “different.”

Writers constantly type things like “14 different species occupy the Outback.”

Now write it minus the redundancy: “14 species occupy the Outback.”

No loss of meaning — because each thing is by definition different.

Another example: “All”

“All people require oxygen to survive.” Can anybody survive without oxygen?

The web is brimming with examples of needless redundancies (yes, we left “needless” in on purpose). This page has 200

Use active voice

Passive voice fattens prose. Consider this example from Computer Business Review:

“SaaS is a cloud model that delivers on-demand applications that are hosted and managed by the service provider.”

That’s three passive verbs in once sentence.

How about:

“SaaS companies deliver on-demand applications hosted and managed in the cloud.”

Switching from passive to active voice pares 18 words to 11 — a 39 percent slice. Not only does it cut your prose, but it also is stronger. Passive voice sounds weak and submissive — keep your writing strong with the active voice.   

Sure, somebody opened a novel with, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Passive voice has its moments, but if you want to use it, it has to work better than an active alternative.

Give yourself some homework

There’s a scene in the movie “A River Runs Through It” where a 12-year-old boy gives a homework essay to his taciturn father. Dad makes a few edits and orders him to cut it in half — twice.

That fictional boy grew up to be the real-life author Norman Maclean, whose stories inspired the movie. So Dad’s lessons in brevity paid off. 

You can capture that spirit by writing a few paragraphs on a topic you care about, noting the word count and doing the “slice-by-half” experiment. (Easiest route is to create a page in Google Docs and use “Word count” from the “Tools” menu).

Make it a competition

Find a couple verbose paragraphs and send copies to your writing friends. (Or if you supervise writers, send to your whole team.)

Challenge them to edit down to the fewest words without sacrificing factual content. Losers buy lunch for the winner.

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Rewrite newspaper headlines

Newspapers have the greatest restrictions on letters, words, and space, with headlines as tight as a door jamb. Making them even tighter is its own reward. 

Write more tweets

Twitter’s 140-character limit is too generous. Add links and hashtags, then start writing your tweets

Boost the challenge by summarizing complex stories about economics, finance, science, and so on. SEO meta-data also poses this challenge: Writing the head in under 60 characters and the summary in less than 150 characters.

Be a ruthless self-editor

Let’s see if you can guess where these are from:

“One man’s struggle to take it easy.”
“In space no one can hear you scream.”
“This is Benjamin. He’s a little worried about his future.”

The answers are Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Alien, and The Graduate respectively.

These examples reflect the best movie taglines — small word counts telling huge stories. The authors of these taglines managed to tell hours of story in a short sentence or two, all while creating interest in their movie.

And that should inspire writers (and editors) to trim, slice, slash and pare down to the essentials.

But bear in mind: the best sentences have a rhythm that requires words on those “delete” lists. Case in point is the word “just.” As in, “this is just about the worst blog on brevity I’ve ever seen.”

But try to imagine Nike saying “Do it.” 

Some sentences need extra words to get the rhythm right. However, most don’t. It’s challenging to pare down words. You should, though, because your content will be more consumable and your brand will be crisper. Running multiple edits through your pieces will help you write more concisely, and eventually, you’ll begin writing more concisely as a habit. Like anything worthwhile, writing concisely takes practice. You just need to begin editing.

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