Whether you’re returning to the office or working remotely, you’ve probably found yourself at more than one meeting this year, which may have been the inspiration for one of the “I survived another meeting that needed to be emailed.” But you’ve probably read more than one email this year that should be a short email.
If something is too complicated for you to say, you should always take up space to say it. But if your prose is unnecessarily worded and repetitive, you are taxing your readers by asking them to focus their attention on calculating what you are saying, rather than thinking about what you are saying.
In such cases, it’s time to edit.
Although this may seem contradictory, writing a long one takes less time than writing a long one. In the illustration: The first draft of this article is 500 words longer than the version you are reading. In 1690, John Locke captured the challenge in an “Essay on Human Understanding,” in which he noted that “To accept the truth, I am too lazy now, or too busy to make it small.”
It’s hard to spend a lot of time writing effectively. But even when you have only a few minutes to edit, you can try these three techniques to reduce your prose.
1. Delete words that don’t add anything to your sentence.
Many workplace documents are weighed by the following words: Generally, essentially, virtually, kindly, really, virtually, completely, essentially, completely, practically, literally and just.
We can (literally) use these words to write (just) (actually) find that our writing is (totally) odd without them. But (usually) once you get into the habit of cutting out these words, you (really) miss them.
If one of these words is essential to the meaning of your sentence, keep it up! But if not, let it go. To determine whether the word should stay or go, ask yourself these questions:
- What is the word to add to your sentence?
- If you cut it, does your sentence miss something?
- If you keep it, do you undermine your message?
Consider this example:
Because the epidemic Absolutely Reduced our hospitals, we had to Basically Reconsider the role of telehealth in our medical system.
To determine if I should keep it “absolutely” and “essentially”, I can ask what those words are adding to my sentence. Has the epidemic degraded our hospitals “completely”? Can they just… be more stressed than strained? Is there a difference between “reconsideration” and “essentially retesting”?
I would like to suggest that we reconsider the role of telehealth, but have we not rethinked everything? Basically helps make that point? Not really. Saying we need to reconsider doesn’t mean we need to reconsider everything, so it doesn’t help basically.
In this case, I cannot make the “absolutely” or “essentially” case. Instead of adding to my sentence, they undermine my message by making it less direct.
So, do you ever have to keep one of those words? Consider this example:
When we want to change suppliers, we are In general Hire an outside firm to review our options.
What are we trying to achieve “in general” there? If we cut it, are we missing something? We do this “normally,” but in some cases if we don’t, you may want to keep it “normally.” But the best solution is to rewrite the sentence to clarify that point:
When we want to switch suppliers, we hire an outside firm to review our options unless one of our partners has already reviewed the supplier.
Bottom line: put in the words you need; Cut or replace words you don’t need.
2. Cut the overlap.
As we figure out what we think by writing, we often repeat ourselves as we get closer to the best version of our thoughts.
Consider an example from my first draft of this article:
When we figure out what we think, we repeat ourselves. Sometimes we say the same thing again because we don’t figure out what to say.
In the first sentence, I say my stuff. (We repeat.) In the second sentence I explain that aspect by including a causal link. (We repeat Because We haven’t figured out what we want to say.) When I revised, I was able to make that causal link to the first sentence and cut the repetition:
As we figure out what we think by writing, we often repeat ourselves in early drafts.
The revised sentence is about half as long as the original overlapping sentences (29 words) (16 words).
To find sentences that overlap in your documents, try to highlight the repetition as you edit it. Here is an example:
Our current staffing problems are exacerbated by a combination of low pay and rising housing costs. Since it is more expensive for employees to rent or buy homes in our proposed cities, we are unable to attract employees from our current salaries, which can cause staffing difficulties. (52 words)
In the first sentence, the authors claim: We cannot find staff because people are not paid enough to live in our area.
In the second sentence, the author repeats that claim but adds new details. Housing costs for renters and buyers in our target cities are high.
If we combine ideas from both sentences, we end with the following sentence:
Our current staffing problems are exacerbated by a combination of low salaries and rising housing costs for renters and buyers in our proposed cities. (27 words)
This new version is much smaller.
3. Instead of telling us what you are going to do in the sentence, do it.
Consider these two sentences:
I’ll give it to you now Three steps we need to take to improve our onboarding process. (15 words)
We need to take three steps to improve our onboarding process. (10 words)
When we read the first sentence, our attention is focused on the author, who offers us something to do instead of the recommendations of the onboarding process. It makes sense that writers include this kind of commentary when they create a record. We are thinking about what we are doing and letting our readers know what we are doing.
But your readers do not need to follow the journey you took when you were creating a document. They need to know where you ended up.
Here’s another example based on one of the sentences we saw above:
I would like to suggest Our current staffing problems are exacerbated by a combination of low salaries and rising housing costs for renters and buyers in our proposed cities.
The reader will know that you are referring to staff issues because you are the author of a document referring to staffing issues. If you cut out the first few words and start with “our current staff issues …” you won’t miss important information.
If you use an unnecessary word frequently, write an occasional overlapping sentence, or tell us what you’re doing in a sentence before you do it, it’s not the end of the world. But additional words add up. If you make a habit of using these techniques, your writing will be short and sharp.