Being Clear and Concise When You Write

Everybody wants their writing to be concise and clear. Here’s some simple rules that you can follow to achieve both clarity and concision in the next thing you write — and a warning about when being concise is a bad idea.

conciseWhen I ask participants in Learning Tree’s business writing course what matters to them in business writing, there are two words that are guaranteed to turn up: concise and clear (the same thing happens in Learning Tree’s technical writing course, by the way). To a certain extent, that reflects what people have been told that their writing should be like. However, I think it also reflects the common frustrations that people have when they read someone else’s writing: People constantly find that it takes too long for the email/document/report they have to read to get to the point and, when they do (finally) get to it, they can’t figure out what the heck the person is talking about.

But, before I tell you what you can do to make sure that you don’t fall into that trap, let me explain what can go horribly wrong when you focus on just being concise.

The Wrong Way to be Clear and Concise

You need to recognize that, as far as content goes, “concision” is a relative term — a writer’s “concise” can easily be the reader’s “You left out everything I needed to know!” In fact, the most common reason that people find some document to be unclear is because the writer left out some important background information that the reader needed.

To put it another way: Concision and clarity are in the mind of the reader, not the writer. No one cares if you think your email/document/report is clear and concise. Like telling a good joke, only the reader/listener’s opinion matters.

You’ve probably had this experience yourself when you’ve received an email with a single word in it: “Yes.” Before you could understand the email, you had to scroll down to the previous email to find out what the question was. Here’s another example from your life: You’ve sent off an email to someone and got back an email from them that boiled down to “What are you talking about?” You then had to respond with the extra, clarifying information before you finally got back a response to your original email (which may, of course, just be that “Yes,” I mentioned earlier).

I’ll let you in on another problem with being too concise: When you haven’t got a response from the other person at all, it’s also probably because you were too concise and left out something important. The part you left out that time was why the other person should care.

Here’s the Do and the Don’t around being concise:

  • Do focus on what your reader cares about and what your reader needs to know. If you want to be clear and want your reader to understand what you’re saying then you need to make sure that the reader has all the background information they need. When you write anything, including an email, always tune into “Listener Radio WII-FM.” That call sign stands for “What’s In It For Me.”
  • Do not focus on what matters to you (often your reader doesn’t care and will, as a result, ignore you) and don’t tell the reader everything you know. Often, when people complain about something “not being concise” what they really mean is “This went on and on about things I don’t care about and then wasted more time telling me stuff I already know”

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What Being Concise Means

So, putting that Do and Don’t together means that the first things you want to do is figure out:

  • What the reader needs to know
  • What the reader will care about

You should say all of that without worrying about being concise…and then (to be blunt) shut up.

If you’re not sure about what the reader needs to know then you have no choice but to include some potentially “extra” information. However, you can provide all sorts of ways for the reader to skip reading it:

  • Use headings (e.g. “Background,” or “How we got here”)
  • Flag paragraphs that contain that potentially “extra” information (e.g. “Here’s a quick review of the project status — feel free to skip down to the next paragraph if you know this.”)
  • Include an appendix — even in an email (e.g. “If you’re interested in some background information, I’ve added that at the end of this email”)

If you have given your readers something they’re interested in, included all (and only) the background information they need, and provided ways for them to skip what they don’t need then you’re well on your way to writing something that your readers will feel is concise.

How to be Clear

You’re also well on your way to writing clearly simply because your reader has all the information they need to understand what you’re talking about. However, there are some things you can do to make sure that you don’t lose that clarity.

For example, you probably don’t need most of the adjectives and adverbs you’ve included — most of those are noise words or clichés that slow the reader down and confuse your message. I had one co-worker prefixed everything with the word “real”: the real problem, the real goal, the real issue. If I had thought there was some problem/goal/issue that others were mistaking for what the actual problem/goal/issue was then I could see including the word “real.” That was never the case but, because he kept bringing the “reality topic” up, I kept looking for those “fantasy” problems — not clear at all.

Get rid of those unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. One of the simplest ways is to look at each adjective, adverb or qualifying phrase and ask yourself “Does this tell the reader something they don’t know and will care about?” If you’re not sure whether to include something, consider this test: In this context would anyone ever say the opposite? For my friend’s emails I could have asked “In this context, would anyone say ‘This problem I’m worried about and want to address is a complete fantasy’?”. If the answer is “No,” you can delete some words, making your document both more concise and more clear.

There are two other threats to clarity that I’ve beaten to death elsewhere so I won’t go into them in depth here: pronouns and synonyms.

That, by the way, was an example of letting the reader skip information they might already know.

Keep Focus to be Clear

Having said all that about eliminating words, there’s one place where, to be clear, you shouldn’t be afraid to add words. When you write, don’t hesitate to repeat key terms — words that reflect what’s important to your reader (look at the number of times that “clear,” “concise,” and “writing” appear in this post, for example). Repeating these terms keeps you and your reader focused because:

  • It reminds the reader what you’re talking about and, therefore, reminds the reader why your document matters to them
  • It also keeps you focused on what matters. If you have more than a sentence or two where you can’t use one of your key terms then you’ve probably wandered away from what’s important to your reader

Repeating key terms keeps the volume turned up on Radio WII-FM. And, simply by staying on topic, you make your writing clearer.

Finally (and just to make my point), since I suspect that’s all that you’re interested in, I’ll shut up now.

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