When less is more

Writing in a concise manner concisely takes effort and a conscious lack of ego

English is a truly amazing and astonishing language. It has a wonderful range of words with finely-graded nuances of meaning. It's like painting from a palette with 50 different tones of blue. And then giving you a choice of dozens of different surfaces on which to apply your paint. Smooth glossy walls or rock faces or cloth or…*

It is extraordinarily tempting to avail ourselves of the plethora of verbs and adverbs, nouns and adjectives to paint detailed word pictures. However, if no-one can work out what your picture is about then the effort is wasted. But if nobody understands what you've written, then your effort is wasted. I could have written 12 words instead of 22.

Writing in a concise manner concisely takes effort and a conscious lack of ego. I just did some research on the internet to write a paragraph contrasting different writing styles. But, as you'll see below, I've deleted it because it isn't directly relevant to this topic.

Writing fiction is unlike writing business documents. Tolstoy's War and Peace or Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises are both fine pieces of writing. One is filled with layers of detail and characterisation and 560,000 words in the English translation, the other 67,000 words and characterised as having an understanding style. I wonder which is read more frequently?

Before you start writing, identify as far as possible the needs of the reader. Consider their existing knowledge, what information will be useful to them and the best way to present it to them.

Write your first draft and then edit by

  • not repeating yourself
  • using one word instead of a phrase ("now" rather than "at this time")
  • rewriting sentences to avoid "which/that/who" ("the recently-painted house" not "the house which had been recently painted")
  • deleting adjectives and adverbs – they often don't add much to the sense of your writing
  • not using clichés (such as "all things considered", "as far as I'm concerned", "for the purpose of", etc.)
  • Check that your message is clear, unambiguous and complete. Yes? Well done.

    By the way...if you want to read a "clean" version of this article, click the thumbnail below.


    *  notes that there are in excess of a quarter of a million words in the English language.  This figure is rather rubbery though; after all, we are constantly developing new words. Some sources claim that there are three-quarters of a million. Choose wisely is all I can say!