Why Writing Longer is (Sometimes) Better
From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Article: Why Writing Longer is (Sometimes) Better
We often hear the admonition to write shorter. It's a good idea. More and more, though, I see a poor execution of that good idea. Often, writers are stuffing too many complex ideas into too few sentences.
None of us wants to read more than we need to grasp an idea. And today's social media helps support this inclination to write concisely--through 140 character tweets, 300 word blog posts and bulleted web pages.
At its best, writing shorter means that the writer has synthesized complicated thoughts into a concise, easy-to-follow idea. At its worst, writing shorter means that the writer has thrown in a bunch of jargon and acronyms and made the reader do the work of figuring out exactly what it's all supposed to mean.
Here are four common mistakes people make when writing shorter:
1) Using jargon. Jargon is shorthand for a more complex concept. Whenever you see jargon in a piece you can be sure that the writer has not taken the time and space to explain an idea well enough. A classic example of jargon used in the nonprofit world is the term "capacity building."
For example, in an evaluation report on funder collaboratives, the writer stated: "This approach is well matched to the foundations' comparative advantage in taking a long-term perspective to institutional capacity building."
The reader will likely have no clue what these foundations are doing in "institutional capacity building."
We re-wrote the sentence to say:
"The foundations seek to strengthen the nonprofit organizations they support by funding them to train their staff and volunteers in new skills, establish new operating procedures or purchase new equipment."
Now, that's a longer explanation than simply saying "capacity building," but it gives readers a clear understanding of what this murky phrase really means.
2) Using too few words to explain an idea. In our eagerness to get to the point, it can be easy to forget that by writing a bit longer we can draw readers into the story--or the idea--that we want them to get excited about. Abbreviated writing is probably the result of a writer being too close to the subject. The writer likely hasn't taken the time to explain how point A leads to point D. Without that explanation, most readers will be lost.
Here is an example from a brief prepared for state policymakers: "States are increasing their investments of efforts and resources in establishing comprehensive early childhood systems that transcend multiple programs, funding streams and lines of authority."
The writer stuffed way too many ideas in one sentence without clear explanations.
Here's the alternative we came up with:
"In recent years, many states have made significant investments to build early childhood systems. Bolstered by federal and foundation funding, these efforts are beginning to make a real difference in the lives of children."
"In several states, passionate governors have championed efforts to provide help and benefits to children at a young age. After witnessing the devastating effects on children when these systems are absent, these governors are building comprehensive early childhood systems-- enacting coordinated, effective policies that address children's health, mental health and nutrition, early care and education, family support and early intervention."
The longer version provides a central focus of who is making the change--governors. It explains what "early childhood systems" are and it connects this nebulous idea to the lives of real people--children.
3) Using bullet points. I'm all for using bullets to get a point across clearly and in a visually interesting way. Bulleted lists are especially helpful on web pages because they are easier to read then dense text. But bullet points can also substitute for clearly explaining an idea. Too many times, bullet points don't explain much.
Here's one example from a lessons learned report on a pilot project to encourage primary care physicians to treat depression:
Leadership is necessary, replaceable, but not sufficient.
That bullet doesn't give enough information for anyone to learn anything useful.
Here's how we re-wrote it, after asking for additional details:
Build depth of leadership into a project so that if one person leaves, the project continues. When a key leader left a project site, getting the project back on track often took months.
If you are going to use bullet points, then make sure each one conveys a complete thought.
4) Using acronyms. No doubt about it, acronyms save space. But they are almost always a bad idea. That's because in many cases the acronyms are unfamiliar to readers. So the reader must pause and think, what does that acronym stand for? That slows down the reader and makes it harder, not easier, to understand what the writer is trying to convey.
Instead of using acronyms, use the full title of an organization. Even if the title is long, readers won't have to pause and wonder what it meant.
If the full title is too cumbersome, then find a generic substitute. For example, on a recent case study I wrote about an organization called the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa or PHEA. Rather than use PHEA or the longer title, I referred to the group as the "Partnership" after the first reference.
Unless acronyms are commonly and instantly known to your audience--like the CDC or the FBI--avoid using them.
Sometimes, by writing longer you give your readers the chance to really understand the good work that you want to convey.
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(c) 2009 Susan Parker, Clear Thinking Communications. All rights reserved. You are free to use material from the Clear Thinking ezine in whole or in part as long as you include complete attribution, including a live web site link. Please also notify me where the material will appear.