“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” ~Elmore Leonard
If you haven’t read Elmore Leonard’s crime novels, I highly recommend them. You’d be hard pressed to find a word too many as he moves you along at a page-turning pace. It’s all about the link between brevity and clarity, which is also at the heart of the Plain Writing Act that President Obama signed more than five years ago.
Getting to the point early and backing it up with details performs two functions. It answers the questions: “What’s this all about? Why should I read any further?” And it honors the busy readers’ time. Nothing is more frustrating or off-putting than a series of long, ponderous paragraphs that meander to a main point that could be buried most anywhere, including the last paragraph.
Writing on deadline for various publications over the years, including the Kansas City Star and Business Week magazine, I learned that it takes much longer to “write tight” to fill the “white space” left after the ads are placed than it does to let it roll with long quotes and complicated sentences. In other words, I had to make decisions about what to keep and what stays in the notebook.
Another way to look at the process is to take careful AIM – audience, intent, and message. Know your audience and have a firm grip on intent, or purpose. Do you want to inform, request, answer questions, explain, ask for more information, clarify a previous email, teach or persuade? What result will show that you’ve accomplished your writing goals?
Once that’s clear, what is the message? Will that message be obvious to the busy reader by the first or second paragraph? Efficient writing must consist of ideas supported by details, from the overall theme to the sub-topics that follow, through the body to the conclusion. In other words, show, don’t tell.
One reliable structural approach is to lay out the details in bullet form — whether chronological (sequential), by order of importance, or by category. Depending on the complexity of the message, the bullets could lead into follow-up paragraphs, which themselves could adhere to a “compare and contrast” or “problem and solution” pattern.
I was talking recently to a fellow government contractor who I want to team with, and he had a spot-on phrase that describes bureaucratic thinking (and thus writing), both public and private, at its worst. It’s all about attitude, and he calls it “risk aversion.”
“Why take chances?” I imagine the risk-averse bureaucrat thinking, “Why not just write that form letter to the complaining taxpayer or vendor the way I’ve always written it? After all, it’s safer that way, isn’t it? I mean, that’s the language that the lawyers suggested, with all the statute citations and ‘to wits’ and ‘pursuants’ and ‘the above referenceds’ and ‘below listeds.'”
To be fair, my gripes don’t apply to all bureaucrats. The training officials responsible for setting up the writing and presentation skills seminars I’ve run for the U.S. Energy Department nod vigorously in the back of the classroom when I discuss one of my favorite acronyms — BLUF (bottom line up front) — and tell the students that they are “public servants,” not “public masters,” and that their writing should reflect that distinction.
So, please remember. Length alienates. Concise writing edifies.
Dave Griffiths is the owner of Dave Griffiths Communications, a veteran-owned small business, that offers training in writing, presentation/briefing skills, and media relations, to include crisis communications. A former Washington journalist who covered national security for Business Week, he has run seminars at more than 15 federal agencies, including the VA and State Dept.