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Get to the point already! Tips for shorter writing

A common saying goes like this: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” It’s been attributed to so many folks over the years, I think we get it now. Brevity—in this case short, concise writing—is hard work.

In advertising and marketing, the shorter the writing the better. You’re often limited by page space, word count, air time, drive speed, and, perhaps the biggest clencher, the average attention span. In short, you need to make your point quickly. This goes for longer forms too, such as web content, articles and brochures. Here are a few tips for shorter writing.

Shave unnecessary words or phrases

Common offenders include “that,” “has to,” “helps to” and phrases that inserts “to,” “of,” “with” or anything designed to join more words. These phrases can often be replaced with one word (“majority of” can become “most”), or, as is often the case with “that,” can be deleted entirely. Great/potentially annoying news: Microsoft Word checks for “concise language” now.

Get rid of present participles and gerunds where possible 

A present participle is a verb ending in -ing. A gerund is a noun ending in -ing. You can consider rewriting your sentence and getting rid of them while keeping the same basic words and meaning. I’ll rephrase: You can rewrite your sentence to get rid of them and still keep the same basic words and meaning. (Same word count, but fewer characters. Less space, and it reads better.)

Choose better adjectives

Get out the dictionary or thesaurus if you need to. Especially when people are describing their amazing, spectacular and grand product or service, they think that a larger quantity of descriptive words will somehow make it sound even better. Wrong. Choose one adjective—perhaps the best one of a group, or an even better one that nails the exact experience with your product or service (think “mouth watering” for food or “eye catching” for design). If your adjective is better, you can also drop the weak “very” or “really” you might’ve put ahead of it.

Cut common redundant phrases

We have a lot of these in our day-to-day language, and this can bog down your written word. A “mutual agreement” is an agreement. An “end result” is just a result. You can’t “again reconsider” something. Reconsidering literally means to consider again. “Repeat again” just gets ironic. The list goes on.

Kill your darlings

“Murder your darlings,” “kill your babies” and other variations have been passed down through English classes for many years. It’s violent, but that’s the point. It means you have to be willing to get rid of something precious to you for the greater good of the content. In other words, you may be married to a certain phrase or clinging to a rather self-indulgent piece of information, but they could distract from your point. Let it go.

Ah-ha! Five tips in under 500 words! Happy (shorter) writing.

Hillary Bowler Davis is a marketing and content specialist at UMG Agency.