It’s no secret that our nation is preoccupied with obesity: how to prevent its occurrence; disguise it through carefully edited clothing choices; or remove it through vigorous exercise, endless diet revolutions, or surgical procedures.
Every time we turn on the television or open a magazine, we see commercials and ads for breakthrough products, equipment, pills, or routines designed to help us shed those unwanted pounds. Our bodies, however, aren’t the only things that need a serious workout and makeover.
I’m referring to workplace writing habits. Chances are you have to do some form of writing on a regular basis in connection with your job. If not reports, proposals, or performance reviews, you are no doubt cranking out email or text messages throughout the day. Like taxes and death, writing is a reality we can’t escape.
At no time in history have people had more ways to communicate with one another—especially through writing—than we do today. In spite of this, we are probably doing a worse job than ever before. (The “why” is better saved for another article.)
From my experience as a seasoned writing instructor, I’ve discovered an interesting division within the groups I teach. Most identify themselves as being members of one of two camps. On one side, there are those who are too brief and abrupt; thus, they come off as blunt—even rude. Such sparse writing might get the point across but might also tick off the readers.
On the other side are those who just don’t know when to stop yet never do get to the point. They overload their sentences with excessive wordiness, repetition, sentences that rival those of Henry James in their length, and have such densely packed paragraphs that no one wants to read them. If they even bother to wade through all the text, readers are left confused, bored, irritated, or all three.
As we already know, it’s much easier to gain weight than it is to lose it, so I’d like to focus this discussion on how to overcome “fat” writing, not beef it up. The solution is painless and costs you nothing.
While I’d like to take credit for originating the following tips, they actually come from several authoritative sources that I rely on when teaching our government and military writing classes. These suggestions are not new, but it takes time for stylistic preferences to trickle down to “end users.” And if the last time you took a writing course was Comp 101 as a college freshman, some of what you’re getting ready to read may come as a surprise—and I hope a pleasant one.
1. Word Choice – Get Skinny!
Bravo if you mastered the polysyllabic words you had to learn in high school English class to pass the weekly vocabulary quizzes. Good for you if you can whip through a New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. Maybe your favorite writer is William F. Buckley, Jr., and you can read his stuff without consulting a dictionary.
For heaven’s sake, don’t forget those $50 words you learned ages ago, but don’t trot them out in an effort to impress your readers when you’re sending out email messages, memos, or business correspondence at work.
Instead, use easily understood words that your readers will know immediately. Your goal is to leave them saying, “I understand you.” Forget about trying to dazzle with your expansive vocabulary.
2. Sentence Length – Get Short!
So your readers can understand you easily, keep your sentences to a manageable length (15 to 18 words at most). Even though you may have spent plenty of time in English classes learning how to “play” with a variety of sentence structures, workplace writing demands clarity and conciseness. Compound-complex sentences usually don’t produce either.
3. Passive Voice – Get Active!
When you’re crafting sentences, here’s a tip that will help to keep them short: write in the active rather than passive voice. Although not grammatically incorrect, passive voice sentences are always longer than those written in the active voice—and, you’ve got to know more stuff about past participles of verbs and all forms of the verb “To Be” in order to use passive voice correctly.
Look at the following sentences:
The end-of-year budget report was reviewed by members of the Finance Committee.(Passive voice with 14 words.)
The Finance Committee reviewed the end-of-year budget report. (Active voice with 10 words).
Not only does the active voice sentence have fewer words, but it is also clearer since we know from the start of the sentence who the “actor” is in the sentence.
Granted, there are times when you will have to use the passive voice, especially when you don’t know who the “actor” is. (For example, The funds were deposited at First National last Friday.) If you don’t know the identity of the depositor, you might have to use the passive voice.
4. Paragraph Length – Get Focused!
As with sentences, try to keep paragraphs relatively short (five to eight lines of type). To do this, make sure you know what the topic of your paragraph is. Don’t try to cover more than one in a single paragraph even if you end up with a two- or three-sentence paragraph. (If you were told a paragraph has to have five sentences, please forget that.)
If it looks like a paragraph is going to exceed eight lines, consider breaking the information into separate paragraphs or using bullets or a numbered list. By doing this, you will make reading the information easier for the audience. Paragraphs that are overly dense with text don’t get read.
5. Bottom Line Up Front – Get Specific!
Without reading the first word, readers take a quick gander at the length of something in writing that comes their way. If it looks too long, chances are very good they won’t read all the way to the end. Your one shot at “hooking” them is to let them know from the get-go what you’re writing about, so put your bottom line at the start of the document.
In memos and email messages, the perfect place to do this is in the subject line. Be specific, and give readers a “heads up” as to whether the information is critical and requires a response or if it is an FYI message that they can read later or not at all.
As with anything else you hope to improve, good writing requires practice and commitment. These five suggestions are only a starting point. If you have taken “heat” in the past from people who complain about your rambling, pointless written communication, go on a composition diet.
Become a “word surgeon” and cut out anything that is not absolutely essential to your readers’ understanding of what you’re trying to convey. Stick to easily understood vocabulary. Lose unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Use the active voice, and slim down those sentences and paragraphs.
The path to writing that is “fit” to be read is easier than you think!