When should you stop writing a memo, letter, or email? When you’ve said everything you NEED to say. That sounds obvious, but too many businesspeople feel they must write long memos, letters, and reports or they will appear unintelligent to their readers. Nothing is further from the truth. The moment you start writing simply to add length, is when your document starts to become illogical, off-topic, and wordy. Then you really sound unintelligent. If your message can be conveyed in one sentence, stop there and hit the SEND button. You will be praised for your brevity.
No one has time to ask a proofreader to edit each email they write before hitting the SEND button. But the vast majority of typos and errors that appear in emails can be eliminated if everyone took one simple step: reread each email before posting it to cyberspace.
Earnest Hemingway stopped writing at the end of each day on a positive note. If five o’clock rolled around and he was in the middle of a paragraph that was tough to write, he would work out the problem, and continue to write until he hit an idea that was easy to write about. Only then would he put his pen down. That way, he looked forward to writing the next day. Psychologically—and writing is all about the little mind games we play with ourselves—Hemingway’s ploy helped him get off to a fast start each morning. This works for business writing as well as novels. Next time you’re working on a long writing project, try this trick. It works.
Officialese refers to the jargon and convoluted phrases that, over time, become part of the vocabulary in every industry. The simple word “form” becomes a “requisite document or instrument of commerce.” Eliminate officialese. Here’s what Warren Buffet, Chairman of the Board, Berkshire Hathaway, has to say about jargon in his preface to A Plain English Handbook: How to create clear SEC disclosure documents: “For more than forty years, I have studied the documents that public companies file. Too often, I’ve been unable to decipher just what is being said or, worse yet, had to conclude that nothing was being said…. There are several possible explanations as to why I and others sometimes stumble over an accounting note or indenture description…. Perhaps the most common problem, however, is that a well-intentioned and informed writer simply fails to get the message across to an intelligent, interested reader. In that case, stilted jargon and complex constructions are usually the villain.”
Whether you’re writing a brief email or a long report, take a little time to vary the length of your sentences. It adds zip to your style. Your readers will also appreciate the change in cadence as they read. No kidding. Everyone has a little voice in their head that speaks to them as they read. Varying sentence lengths will keep that voice alert and interested.
Everything you write on the job will go faster and involve fewer headaches if you focus on your message (what you want to say) instead of the mechanics (grammar, spelling, and punctuation). Nothing inhibits writing and causes writer’s block more than proofreading while writing. Take a tip from Merry Olde England. In Shakespeare’s day, spelling wasn’t a big deal. In fact, of the six known signatures of Shakespeare, each one is spelled differently. Back then, what you wrote was more important than how you wrote it. (Spelling wasn’t standardized until 1755 when Samuel Johnson published the first English dictionary.) Times have changed and spelling is extremely important today, but it should be of last importance in your writing process. Don’t spell check until AFTER you have a clear, concise document in hand!
Concrete words are “tangible.” You can touch, see, hear, smell, taste and paint a picture of the objects they describe. Abstract words are just the opposite. They make no mental connection to physical objects in the world. Many concrete words are derived from Anglo-Saxon and tend to be one syllable, more direct and blunt than abstract words, which are typically polysyllabic Latin words.
Concrete: rose, thimble, chair, paper, water, axe, dirt, chalk, telephone, milk
Abstract: occupation, intermittent, precept, offer, monograph, epilogue, aspect
A mix of both types, with an emphasis on concrete words, is best. People who overuse abstract words tend to be wordier.
William Faulkner: “[Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
Hemingway’s response: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
We’ve all seen those lists with two columns: the first one consists of dozens of million-dollar “fancy” words like ascertain, circumvent, and endeavor. The second column is a list of ten-dollar “everyday” words—find out, avoid, and try—that are replacements for the fancy ones in the first column. The idea behind this writing tip is that if you use too many fancy words, you’ll sound like a pedant or stuffed shirt. But you need to view and apply these lists with a little common sense. When writing a document, if your Writer’s Intuition tells you that ascertain is the exact right word to use, then use it.
“When we were young and fast and invincible, the Road Runner was our hero. Impervious to danger, the Road Runner ran without tiring, scooted without fear and beep-beeped coolly like a blue James Bond. But as I look down now from this creaking tower of years, I see it was the Coyote who deserved my admiration. That TV show was never about the Road Runner. It was always about the Coyote. The Coyote was determined. Determined is a word much misunderstood. Obstinate people are not determined. They merely suffer from too much pride. Stubborn people are not determined. Stubbornness is willful ignorance. Determination is an unblinking willingness to pay the price as often as it must be paid. Determination is never losing sight of your objective, no matter what comes along to distract you. Determination is endurance. How about you? If Failure appears without warning and throws you onto the rocks below, will you happily crawl out of that smoking crater and go back to work?” Roy H. Williams, author, The Wizard of Ads.
Now… go start that big writing project you’ve been putting off.
“The time to begin writing an article [or any document] is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.” This is Twain’s humorous way of saying “writing is rewriting”—a tip we all know, but is so very hard to put into practice, especially when writing under a deadline. However, the more we hear it and practice it, the better chance this tip will become part of our writing process.