Judy Nollet
White Plume Communications

writer, instructional designer, eLearning developer

A Brief Look At Brevity

"Brevity is the soul of wit." So says Polonius in Hamlet (though Polonius himself tends to be anything but brief). Whether your communications need to be witty or simply clear, the need to be brief does force you to focus on the essential elements and discard the rest.

Nowadays, online messages may be limited to 140 characters. Brief, indeed! Unfortunately (well, to those of us who care about the use of language), brevity is often achieved by ignoring proper spelling and grammar. OK. I admit that tweeting is, by its nature, less formal than standard business communications, and its followers (i.e., readers) generally understand and even embrace the unconventional writing. Yet there must be a limit to how much structure can be removed from the language before the foundation – the ability to communicate – crumbles. In other words, could we survive TEWAMARTI (The Era When All Messages Are Reduced To Initials)?

Let's assume that your business-related writing still needs to be clear, concise, and grammatically correct. How can you achieve brevity without tossing out clarity?

Use Fewer Words

"Duh," I can almost hear you say at this point. Of course using fewer words leads to shorter text. The trick is being able to spot which words to delete. The first draft, for most people, comes out as a torrent of words, flooding the page with unnecessary information and extraneous phrases.

Here are some wordy examples:

  • a variety of types of products
  • parts of the aspects of the design process
  • ATM machine

These phrases suffer from redundancy. The first two are quickly fixed by taking out the extra "of" phrase. "A variety of products" and "aspects of the design process" use fewer words and are easier to read. The third example proves that you should know what the letters stands for before you use acronyms or initialisms. (It's saying "Automatic Teller Machine machine.")

There are also many common phrases that, while not redundant, can easily be shortened. For example, "in order to help" can be simply stated as "to help."

Once you're aware of typical wordy expressions, it's easier to spot them – and delete them – from your writing.

Use Shorter Words

Notice I have yet to use "utilize." Now there's a word that could be banished from the language with little fallout. While it's important to keep your audience's education level in mind (for example, you don't have to say "heart doctor" when you're addressing cardiologists), there's no need to show off your vocabulary. As the ironic slogan says: "Eschew obfuscation."

Be clear. Be brief. Be understood.

Read more about being brief:

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Copyright Judy Nollet, White Plume Communications. 
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