Sunday, March 20, 2011

Shorter Is Better

I'm currently working with an editor from MuseItUp to prepare Dead Witness for its ebook release in July.  So, when I read Katherine's article for this month's column, I was amazed by her timing.  I'm sure we all know this stuff, but sometimes we need a short reminder. I hope you'll find it equally helpful.

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Most people think of "rushing about" as a modern dilemma. But though faster technology and unlimited options have exacerbated "hurry sickness," dislike of "wasted time" has been around for quite a while. The classic composition booklet Elements of Style, first published in 1918, urges writers to avoid wasting readers' time with "needless words": "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."

A sure way to offend magazine editors is to submit a manuscript with the comment "I know you don't normally publish stories of over 1,000 words, but I'm sure you'll find this 3,000-word piece is worth making an exception for." Such approaches frequently come from writers who haven't even bothered trying to shorten their first drafts. And the temptation is even worse in business writing, where there are no official word counts, no obvious immediate rejections, usually more of a sense of "rush," and (in e-writing) no extra expense involved for additional length. No extra expense in terms of print costs, that is. One can only guess how many potential customers lose interest after one glance at the infinitesimal size of a screen-height bar, or give up in disgust after two rambling paragraphs.

The #1 hint for concise business writing is Take time to edit. First drafts always ramble; it's unavoidable.

Some other (short and sweet!) hints:
  • The word that, and phrases containing it ("the fact that," "it occurs to me that"), are among the most dispensable items. Ditto for qualifier adverbs such as usually, frequently, and very.
  • Active voice ("Tom brought the salad") is more concise and stronger than passive ("The salad was brought by Tom").
  • Replace adjectival phrases with nouns, and adverbial phrases with verbs. ("Prodigy" instead of "brilliant young man," "sprinted" instead of "ran quickly.")
  • Keep a thesaurus handy; it cuts words wasted trying to achieve precise descriptions.
  • Keep your topic or thesis narrow, and remove any sentences (or paragraphs!) that don't relate to it.
Hope this post was short enough!

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Katherine Swarts is a professional copywriter and journalist, founder and owner of Spread the Word Commercial Writing in Houston, Texas. Spread the Word is certified by the Women's Business Enterprise National Council.

Since 1993, Katherine has published over 50 articles in numerous periodicals, including Carus Publishing's Appleseeds, Faces, and Odyssey; Children's Writer (on which see comments in next paragraph); and Christian Home & School. She has also prepared two anthologies for Thomson Gale.
Katherine has a bachelor's degree in English from Austin College in Sherman (TX), and a master's degree in written communications from Wheaton (IL) Graduate School. She has also studied with the Institute of Children's Literature, which publishes the monthly newsletter Children's Writer; two annual market guides; and an annual writer's yearbook.


  1. How very true this is, I'm more guilty than most.

  2. Me, too, Carol. I should probably post my "bad words" on my monitor so I'm forced to remember them daily. Have a wonderful Sunday.

  3. Excellent advice! I'm an advocate of less is more, but I have some terrible habits, so it's a 'do as I say, not as I do' thing. 'That' is one of my worst offenders, too!

  4. Aha, well I endeavour to keep my writing to a minimal. The best reason would be to not subject anyone to an over abundance of my gibberish.....However, I have been known to use the occasional run-on sentence that has the aggravating repetition of the conjunction word 'and' and with that and because I cannot think of anything else, this comment and my musings will abruptly come to a halt and stuff....:-)

  5. A long-time favorite quote: "I am sorry to write such a long letter. I didn't have time to write a short one."
    --attributed to Mark Twain & Blaise Pascal

    Ain't it the truth.


  6. This is very useful Joylene - they're are going straight into my documents. Thanks!

    I grew up learning English as a second language (our schools teaches in Malay). The idea then was to impress - the more complicated the sentence structure the better, and the frequent use of bombastic words could even win girls over! Gone are the days, I realise.

    Malay literature is even worse - writers deliberately long-wind as it is not the nature of the Malay culture to call a spade a spade but goes about it with poetic verses.

  7. @Carol, you're so funny. I don't believe for one moment that you have some terrible habits.

    @Klahanie, Gary, you crack me up! Hope you're having a wonderful Sunday.

    @Keith, I love that quote too! I should post it where I can see it daily. Happy writing, kiddo.

  8. Grandpa, I had no idea. And yet, there you are lean and trim, with such elegant prose. You obviously didn't catch the bug. Hope your weekend was fun.

  9. Great stuff! That quote about the needless words is one of my favorites. I think of it and aim to use it often.

    Thanks to you both, Katherine and Joylene, for sharing this. Oh and btw, Katherine, I studied at ICL too. Learned a lot. :)

    Happy Monday,

  10. P.S. Joylene - cheering you on to the finish line with Dead Witness!

  11. Hi Karen, I'm so glad you were able to stop by. I'm learning so much from Katherine that being able to share her wisdom with my cyberpals has been terrific. And thanks for your cheers. Means a lot. Have a wonderful week.

  12. 'The Elements of Style' was one of my first writing books.

    And I must have quoted that advice about not using unecessary words to everyone I came across in the writing world. But it's such good, solid advice.

    Thanks for sharing these wonderful tips!

  13. Hey, Carol, you're not alone. I have my little copy right by my desk. It's invaluable. Thanks. Have a wonderful week.

  14. Wonderful post, Joylene. Super advice!
    And... I have an award at my Fortnight of Mustard blog for you. :)

  15. More wonderful advice from Katherine. I like looking for needless words in my writing, seeing where I can cut back. It doesn't take much to excite me!! lol

    Great post, Katherine and Joylene!

  16. Amanda! Thank you. I love awards. I will cherish yours. Have a super weekend.

  17. Laura, I understand what you mean. So many things about writing excite me still. Just saying that excites me. LOL.


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