To begin this article, I want to make a strong point that there is nothing wrong with writing long pieces. Reading long pieces of writing is essential to anyone who wants to write, so having the skills to write longer pieces and the passion to read longer pieces is fundamental for any writer. A love of words is probably what drew you to the profession, or at the very least encouraged you to want to know more about the astonishing value of being able to work with words effectively. The world needs both long and short form copy, so it’s worth learning what you can to become proficient at both.
With that said, there may be times where you have to be brief, but short doesn’t have to equate to prosaic. Words like terse and curt tend to have the very negative connotation of rudeness, like when someone in a bad mood responds snappily in a tense dialogue. But sometimes sparse language can be profound. A famous six-word story attributed to Ernest Hemingway comes to mind:
“For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Why did someone write this advert? Who might have written this? How might they be feeling?
As a writer, or simply as someone who needs to write for certain purposes, you might find that what you write is a bit wordy. Brevity doesn’t come naturally to all of us and is a skill that, thankfully, can easily be learned. But like every skill, writing concisely needs to be revisited every so often.
I learnt this skill many years ago when I had my first stint at a newspaper aged 16, but as many years passed I found that when it came to writing briefly about certain topics again, it had become difficult. The difficulty arose primarily from a lack of direction, for example, once I was given a writing task but no word count which the individual making the request then wanted to cut down after. This was, of course, the fault of the person expecting the content, as they should have specified what they wanted in terms of length to begin with.
However, it was a reminder to me of not only what I needed in terms of direction, but also that it had been a long time since I had really had to condense my words into snippet format. I had to revisit what I had learnt as an undergraduate Journalist and return to an economical use of language. My writing has never been verbose, but at the same time, it’s always an interesting practice for me to see if I can make what I’m trying to say shorter. Brevity advocate Friedrich Nietzsche stated: “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.” I’m a big fan of cutting out the fluff, and only including what needs to be said.
Some questions to ask yourself when writing a piece that you know needs to be short, or that needs to be cut down:
What is the point of this piece of writing? What am I trying to convey?
It doesn’t matter whether your piece is fiction, nonfiction, journalism, or script, there is a purpose behind what you’re writing. Think clearly about what that purpose is, and keep that in mind every time you edit.
Is everything in this piece relevant?
It’s good to consider the bare bones, and then add flourishes if relevant and if your word count allows. If there are words that are tautological or unnecessary, cut them out.
Are there parts of this piece that don’t have a function?
You may find that you want to use descriptions, metaphors, similes, or other expressions, and that’s absolutely fine as long as it performs a function. For example, you might want to include some atmospheric descriptions of the outside world including scenery, weather, and physical space if it helps to foster a certain mood pivotal to your writing. Creativity can certainly still be functional, in some cases essential.
Can I say the same thing in fewer words?
In most cases, you can condense what you want to say through eliminating the fluff and sticking to the point. Check if you’re being repetitious, or if there are any redundant words not performing a service in the piece.
I’ve found that the best way to practice writing really concise text is to practice writing NIBs (News In Brief). These are essentially news stories that are 50 words or less, and are typically written from press releases that originally had 600 plus words. They typically feature in small columns in the sides of newspaper pages. Being able to distil and refine this information is a worthwhile skill to learn as any kind of writer. Practise writing some NIBs by Google searching some sample press releases, and see how you fare on getting all relevant information into 50 words. The 50 words should answer all essential questions including who, what, where, why, and how. Most of what you write won’t have to be 50 words, it may not even be journalistic, but this task acts as recourse and hammers home the practice of purpose-driven writing with clarity.
Concision is still considered paramount in a world that has largely become image focused. Although print news in general is diminishing, short snippets of information in newspaper columns are now also omnipresent across social media. Interestingly, however, Twitter has now extended its Tweet length due to popular demand. Independent bookshops in some areas are thriving, proving people still enjoy reading (longer than three lines). The best-case scenario as a writer would be to create the best of both worlds by applying discernment to writing that doesn’t compromise creativity. We can all benefit from embracing minimalism and literary compression. Length doesn’t always have to be a constraint if you choose your words carefully.
What is the best example of concision in writing you’ve ever seen? Let us know on our social media accounts.
Got questions about writing or editing? Ask your question and hashtag #AskTheUKDomain on social media and I’ll endeavour to get back to you.