3/21/11

The Art of Shorter Writing

Andy Selsberg’s op-ed in The New York Times this weekend got me thinking about the difficulty of professional writing in the age of Twitter. As someone that was taught the standards of a five-paragraph essay, or a 500-word report paper, the modern style of professional writing simply doesn’t fit this mold any longer. Many will blame Twitter for the reduction in the length of communications, but as I think about it, this has been an evolving process for a number of years… most likely starting with the boom in e-mail communications starting in the mid-1990’s.

I think back over the years to the memos I’ve written for bosses, judges, professors, deans, associates, and partners and I’ve recognized that my writing style has gone from lengthy paragraphs (five-paragraph essay), to bullet-point sentence fragments, to what it is today; a short, concise sentence or two that explains the situation and either leaves an open-ended question to be answered, or points to another document that gives a further explanation. Sounds almost exactly like what I do with my Twitter messages.

Let’s face it, writing isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do for many of us. Most of us have been able to establish a formula for writing (again, usually based upon a variation of the five-paragraph essay), and can “fake” our way through it by following that formula. Unfortunately, many of the people that are reading what we have to write don’t have the time or the interest to read your introduction, explanation of ideas, and conclusion, so they tend to skim through and pick out the highlights of what you’ve written. So, like it or not, your writing is already getting scaled back by the reader, and hopefully they haven’t missed the real highlights that were shrouded in those 15-20 sentences.

Selsberg nails the modern writing style when he hints that we’re not talking about dumbing down the way we write, but rather shortening the way we write by “learning how to write concisely, to express one key detail succinctly and eloquently.” He makes his students write these short, concise, succinct and eloquent assignments explaining YouTube videos, writing a review on Amazon, or an eBay ad on the clothes they are currently wearing. In the professional world, we have similar items that we write on explaining a newspaper story, a recent court decision, or synopsis of a competitive intelligence report. Just like with the classroom assignments, the short message is meant to give the reader enough information to either lead them on to something else, or to move them away from the topic because there is no need to go any further.

I just noticed that my explanation of modern short writing style has resulted in a basic five-paragraph (520-word) essay. It is still the main formula I use for blog writing, but I’ll shorten it up when I link to it on Twitter, or when I send out an email to my friends and colleagues pointing them to the post. Of course, now I’m wondering how much of this you’ve skimmed over just now trying to pick out the highlights?

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7 comments:

Ayelette Robinson said...

Nice post, Greg. Based on what I skimmed (just kidding), I agree - being able to write concisely is a wonderful skill.

I believe a reader grants you a favor, indeed gives you a gift, by reading what you write. So if you can convey your meaning in 5 words, why make that person read 500? Twitter or no, brevity is and has always been the soul of wit.

Kingsley Martin said...

This trend towards simplification has been going on for some time. In 1893, L. A. Sherman wrote Analytics of Literature, A Manual for the Objective Study of English Prose and Poetry. In the book, he showed how sentence-length averages shortened over time:
• Pre-Elizabethan times: 50 words per sentence
• Elizabethan times: 45 words per sentence
• Victorian times: 29 words per sentence
• Sherman’s time: 23 words per sentence.

At this rate, we'll soon be down to a few grunts and return full circle to our caveman heritage. Ugh!

Sean said...

I see this in a big way when it comes to sending email about IT upgrades and trying to document steps to accomplish tasks. Short, sweet and to the point. Feel the need to be wordy? Make sure the main points are in bold to grab the skimmers attention.

Joe Howie said...

There's a story, often attributed to Mark Twain, about his writing a long letter to a friend. He closed the letter with an apology for its length, saying he didn't have the time to write a short one. I think there's a lot of content that's been written in a hurry these days -- kind of like the "dictated but not read" footers on some doctors' notes.

joemillerjd said...

None of it. I read every word, man. Good post.

Lynne DeVenny said...

Greg, as an English major, I used to be the master (or mangler) of the 500-word single sentence. But as a working legal professional and blogger, I realized that I was going to have to take a simpler, more direct approach when writing for clients and blog readers.

Adopting a more journalistic style, i.e. shorter sentences and paragraphs, using the active voice, helps me get to the point more quickly, and hopefully in a way that doesn't cause my readers' attention to skitter off the page.

I think using Twitter can actually improve naturally verbose legal professionals' ability to get to the most interesting or helpful point right quick. I suggest sharing anecdotes on Twitter, using three (or fewer) tweets.

iinek law and informatics said...

In an era of information overload, shorter ideas and thoughts might be the way to go. Writing on my PhD on legal information as a tool, I wonder why 100 pages is not considered enough for a doctoral thesis.

Aren't lawyers trained to write lengthy arguments though shorter reasoning might be enough?

 

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