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Write Less, Say More: The Power of Brevity

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There is a common misconception when it comes to writing that is professional in nature that a person must write in a verbose manner to come across as intelligent.

I am sorry.  Let me do that again.

People often make a mistake in thinking that writing long-winded sentences with big words makes them appear smart.

Actually, let me try this one more time.

You don’t need to write a lot or use big words to sound smart.

Now, that’s better.

Too often, people write sentences like the one at the top when they should choose version #3.  The main culprit, in my view, is the loathsome college essay.  Only in college are we forced to write a paper a certain length.  We develop strategies that balloon our paragraphs so we can fill out eight, 10 or 12 pages and pick up our gold stars on the way out.

In the real world, most people don’t enjoy reading cover letters, resumes and presentations.  It’s extra work and burdensome.  Worst of all, trying to write beyond our skill level screams ‘I’m in over my head.’

When you write with brevity, you make your points quickly and shrewdly.  You don’t waste words and, in doing so, you don’t waste a person’s time.  An employer or hiring manager, for instance, then sees you as sharp and courteous.

The secret to brevity (and, in turn, clarity) is something we are rarely taught growing up and may appear anathema to a professor of English lit:

Write like you are talking to a friend.

I don’t mean write in Internet jargon or shorthand.  Whenever I am stuck on a sentence, I step back from the computer screen and ask myself, ‘OK, what am I trying to say here?’  Rather than come up with the most eloquent way to make my point, I write it out in plain English as if talking to a buddy.  And once I have my conversational sentence, then I go and attack it with a red pen.

Let’s use the examples from the top.

The before:

There is a common misconception when it comes to writing that is professional in nature that a person must write in a verbose manner to come across as intelligent.

The after:

You don’t need to write a lot or use big words to sound smart.

First things first, I switched the voice from passive to active (from ‘there is’ to ‘you’).  Always locate your subject and lead with it.  Active voice feels confident; passive does not.

To write the shorter sentence (version 3), I literally sat up from my computer and asked, ‘What am I trying to say?’  I stopped trying to be clever with it, and the words found their way onto the page.

I also have a habit of being very critical with the number of words I use in each sentence.  Once I write something, I go back and decide if each and every word I just wrote deserves to be there.  Say to yourself: if I remove this word, would the sentence still make sense?  If I removed this sentence, would the paragraph make sense?  And the ultimate: do I really need this paragraph?

Speed is key.  When people read your cover letters and resume, you need to be very respectful of their time.  Don’t write five huge paragraphs that go on and onBe tough on yourself and really give them just what they need to know. You are better off making one or two main points (or telling one great story) rather than trying to jam your entire life into an employer’s brain.

And when you finish editing your work, go back and edit again.  After that, go back and edit some more.  A boss may never tell you he/she loved your cover letter or resume, but ones that are tightly written and well-composed will leave an impression.

Most of all, you will stand out.  College did not prepare us very well for the process of job applications.  But those who take it upon themselves to learn to harness the power of brevity will have an edge every time.

Danny Rubin is a national news consultant for media research firm Frank N Magid Associates. He is a former television news reporter, lives in Washington, D.C. and tweets as @dannyhrubin.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

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  • Anonymous

    I agree with what you’ve said and I think it was Ernst Hemmingway that gave a lot of credence to not needing to be overly wordy in prose. Using the active voice is definitely the best way to write. The reader requires less energy to read your work and often times you need less effort to compose it.

    Though I do find myself taking a bit of extra time to clean up emails before sending them, it’s worth it. Thanks for this post. There should be loads more like it.

  • Anonymous

    Wonderful tips Danny!
    What a short and powerful crash course in effective writing.
    Thank you so much.

  • Rgiturbides

    Agree. great advise!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/AJAOWNLLNTBFEWGSAXCFUBX3CE Bink

    Hi Danny,

    This is my favorite line in your blog: “You don’t need to write a lot or use big words to sound smart.”

    I agree with you. As we usually say in college, what are all these (long essays, reviews, journals) for? It doesn’t mean that a short report would be insignificant. And neither would long essays would be synonymous to interesting and well thought out assessment of a task. It just doesn’t go that way.

    • Anonymous

      My thoughts exactly. Thanks!

  • Amy Strecker

    Amazing. Thanks.

  • http://alexisgrant.com/ Alexis Grant

    Super post, Danny. Love it!

  • Bobgoldenster

    “When i write, i try to leave out the parts people skip” — unk

    Nice job Danny.

    • Anonymous

      Well said, Bob!

  • AyekaMark

    Read. Enjoyed. Will incorporate. Thanks!

    • Anonymous

      OK. Great. You’re welcome.
      :)

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  • http://twitter.com/greenpastin Greener Pastures

    Writing comes from the heart. There is no way to judge a writer. If he manages to woo your heard and mind, then he is good indeed.

    Writing is beautiful.

    Regards,
    http://thegreenerpastures.com

  • Anonymous

    And they say… there is wisdom in brevity ( now, that’s five words ). Love the examples you’ve shared here, thanks!

  • Roberta Lerman

    Terrific post!
    Less can be more is a skill I need to incorporate.
    thanks

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  • Sam Dickerson

    Excellent post! Thank you for including resumes and cover letters in your blog. I screen them daily and wish I could give this feedback to many applicants.

  • http://twitter.com/LetBobRecruit4U Bob Morris

    So true. I myself can sure put this to use. Thanks

  • http://www.desmondotv.com/ Lead Generation

    Yes, I definitely agree! Write less, Say more! Go straight to your point, make it short and clear. :)

  • http://growingforward.net Scott Asai

    One great way to practice this is through blogging. I’ve found my ability to communicate clearly has improved in my writing. You can proofread when you type, but not so much when you speak. People want to know what the point/goal is so they can make a decision about how to respond. Without it, people leave confused.

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