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UntitledA NEWSLETTER FROM HARVARD BUSINESS PUBLISHING Five Quick Ways to Trim—
and Improve—Business Writing
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Five Quick Ways to Trim—and Improve—Business Writing
by John Clayton
At a time when we’re all working “smarter and faster” 2. STICK TO SPECIFICS
and the Internet has dramatically changed how people Specifi cs are the meat of your message, and generalizations read and absorb information, business writing needs to the carbs. Put your writing on a high-protein, low-carb be relentlessly concise. And yet it has to deliver complex diet. A good anecdote or statistic will stay with your audience longer than a generalization and better convey If you’re like most people, you probably fi nd that once you have all the crucial information down, your document debates, devote precious time to anecdotes. Th is at least twice as long as it should be. Whether you’re that telling a story (about a wounded soldier, a laid-off writing an e-mail message, a project description limited worker, or a creative entrepreneur) is oft en the best way to 200 words, or an executive summary of a complex to make a persuasive argument (for better weapons, more report, your challenge is the same: cut length without unemployment insurance, lower business taxes).
losing meaning. Here are some quick, eff ective ways to do this.
3. FORMAT FOR QUICK UNDERSTANDING
And there’s a bonus: As you trim excess words, format Graphical elements—headings, bullets, and tables—can for readability, and replace generalizations with specifi cs, help you convey your message in fewer words.
you’ll also improve your writing—a lot. Headings and bullets. Headings are useful because
they emphasize your main points, eliminate the need
1. EXAMINE THE STRUCTURE
for topic sentences, create white space, and help readers Which parts form the foundation or support the roof, skim. But the way they’re usually formatted—on a line by and which can be cut away without collapsing the whole themselves, sometimes with a blank line following—takes up a lot of space. If you want to save space without losing e old advice about previewing and then reviewing the headings, convert them to run-in headings like the your message may still be fi ne for lengthy reports, but one at the beginning of this paragraph.
for most business writing, this amounts to building three Like headings, bullets help readers skim. Th walls where one will do. Don’t announce what you will encourage you, the writer, to “chunk” information into small, digestible bites, as in this list.
For example, you may have followed your English teacher’s advice to include in your introductory paragraph Tables. To compare and contrast various options, use
one sentence touching on each point you will make. Here’s a table rather than running text. You won’t have to keep an easy cut: Delete the introductory paragraph and jump repeating the names of diff erent companies, for instance, or the criteria on which you’re judging them. More Additionally, the foundation you built may be more important, a table presents complex comparisons in a substantial than you need. For example, maybe you’ve succinct way. Your readers can compare A and B, B and included detailed background information. Does D, or A, B, and C as they please; you don’t have to explain your audience need this in order to understand and be all the similarities and diff erences between them. An persuaded by your argument? If not, summarize it briefl y added bonus: Your audience’s expectations change when and get right to the heart of your message. Consider cutting anything that illuminates something and they’re willing to read text in a smaller font.
other than your main point. And if a section exists mostly Maps and diagrams. Th
out directions: Maple St. is the third stoplight. Th Copyright 2008 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved. Trim Your Writing continued
Is Following the Rules
be split. Consider this sentence: Our CEO expects to more than Tripping Up Your Message?
Try rewriting it so as to eliminate the split inﬁ nitive; there’s no way to do it without losing the precise meaning of the origi- Will the sky fall if you end a sentence with a preposition? Will time stop if you split an inﬁ nitive? No, of course not.
Here is another example: We are trying to immediately solve In fact, your most sophisticated readers won’t even bat an eye. any customer-service problems that arise. And it’s not because they’ve become so accustomed to the Transposing to and immediately changes the meaning—imme- shortcuts and improvisations of e-mail that they don’t notice diately now modiﬁ es are trying. Placing immediately after solve when someone breaks a rule. They still notice, all right. It’s makes the sentence stilted. And moving immediately to the just that they know that some “rules” aren’t rules at all—and end of the sentence is no good, because there it appears to These nonrules are known as “superstitions” among the gram- With split inﬁ nitives, the best bet is to steer a middle course. mar and usage set, and they may be preventing your writing If you can avoid a split inﬁ nitive without altering meaning, from being as strong, direct, and effective as it can be. Here introducing ambiguity, or interrupting ﬂ ow, you should do so, 1. Never end a sentence with a preposition. This is one of the
3. Never begin a sentence with and or but. Go ahead and do
most enduring of superstitions, despite centuries of commen- it—you’ll be in good company. The Oxford English Dictionary cites sentences beginning with and that date back to the 10th The origins of this bugaboo lie in etymology and the origins of English grammar, explains Bryan A. Garner, widely respected A scholar in the 1960s, says Garner, studied the work of top- language authority and author of the excellent A Dictionary of ﬂ ight writers—H.L. Mencken and Lionel Trilling among them— Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 1998).
and found that nearly 9% of their sentences began with and or In Latin, preposition means “stand before,” and in Latin, a but. Garner’s own research has turned up similar results.
preposition does indeed stand before other words; it’s the one Some writers substitute however for but at the beginning of part of speech that can’t end a Latin sentence.
a sentence, believing that by so doing they’re hewing to the But English is not Latin. Although English grammar is modeled grammatical line. What they’re doing is stalling the progress on Latin grammar, the languages are very different, and some of their prose. But at the beginning of a sentence keeps things zipping nicely along, while however—followed by its obligatory Criticized for ending a sentence with a preposition, Winston comma—is a verbal speed bump, jarring the reader and slow- Churchill is said to have quipped, “That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.” As this absurdly 4. Never write a one-sentence paragraph. Varied paragraph
stilted sentence demonstrates, the syntactical contortions length, like varied sentence length, is a hallmark of a skilled necessary to keep a sentence ending preposition-free result stylist. Writing a one-sentence paragraph is an excellent way to in awkward, turgid prose—not the best vehicle for your grab the reader’s attention or emphasize an important point.
2. Never split an inﬁ nitive. The fact is, some inﬁ nitives beg to
Denny’s on one corner and a used-car lot on the other corner, Instead, put your main point in boldface to convey its but if you get to the Clarksdale city limits, you’ve gone too far. A map conveys the same information concisely and
accessibly. Flowcharts, graphs, and diagrams likewise 4. DOWNSHIFT YOUR TONE
convey complex relationships in easy-to-understand Writing to a business audience can cause even the best
writers to adopt a formal, bureaucratic tone. When you write this way, you use bigger words, more complex Emphasis. To make sure your audience remembers
constructions, and longer sentences. If you shift to an what you have to say, you may be tempted to use phrases informal tone, you’ll naturally write more concisely.
is is the most important point or If you take one Here’s a place to start. Use contractions. Changing will message away from this document, let it be the following. not to won’t and cannot to can’t won’t save much space, HARVARD MANAGEMENT UPDATE | SEPTEMBER 2008
Trim Your Writing continued
but using contractions will help you avoid the wordy, reduce sales. Do a search for the word obvious, and see if formal style of bureaucrats, explains Edward P. Bailey in the sentences in which it appears can be trimmed down. Plain English at Work: A Guide to Writing and Speaking Aft er all, if something is obvious, why waste precious Convert “of ” phrases to possessives. For example,
5. CUT AND COMBINE
change the success of the company to the company’s Go over your document sentence by sentence, looking for ways to cut words by combining two sentences into one. Consider this passage: Th is presentation examines the benefi ts Replace bloated phrases with simpler words. An
of outsourcing. It is my recommendation that we reduce adequate number of can be replaced with enough, overhead by outsourcing noncore processes such as customer notwithstanding the fact that is a windy way of saying service, fulfi llment, and other support functions. although, and during such time as simply means while.
e fi rst sentence is dead weight. Delete it and write: We could signifi cantly reduce overhead by outsourcing such noncore support functions as customer service and By applying these tips, you can create documents that are not only shorter but more readable and persuasive. You’ve now announced your topic and stated your position with wording that’s almost 50% leaner than the original.
John Clayton is a Montana-based writer and author of a
recent biography, The Cowboy Girl: The Life of Caroline Lockhart (University of Nebraska Press, 2007). He can be Drop lengthy titles. Rather than Bob Smith, Vice
reached at [email protected] President for Corporate Communications and Government Relations, says…, you could write spokesperson Bob Smith Reprint # U0809D: To order a reprint of this article, call 800-668-6705
Look out for the obvious. Rather than writing,
Obviously, this means we will need to raise prices, which
could reduce sales, write, Our need to raise prices could
HARVARD MANAGEMENT UPDATE | SEPTEMBER 2008
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