Posted March 10, 2020
Word economy means using the fewest possible words to communicate your message without losing meaning. Economically written documents will be shorter, clearer, easier to read, and often more impactful.
Unfortunately, “prolix” writing – or text that uses too many words – is far more common. In fact, we’ve written about this before: overwriting is a disease that plagues many forms of business- and technical-oriented writing. Such writing takes too much time to read (making it less likely a reader will finish) and makes it too hard to understand the main points (eroding reader comprehension).
So, how can organizations and writers avoid prolix writing in favor of word economy?
Plan ahead and don’t beat around the bush.Before putting pen to paper (or hands to keyboard), think about what you want to say in the document – and how to best say it. Planning is very helpful in economizing wordcount. Then, be straightforward. Don’t talk “around” the subject and avoid unnecessary “buildup” before getting to the point. While it may be important to establish context or define concepts, many writers meander through inessential details before making their point.
Make sure every word adds meaning and value.Some words are like empty calories: they may add some flavor, but they’re devoid of any value. For example, we always advise our students to use the “real verb” whenever possible. This means saying “We acted” instead of “We took action.” In that statement, “took” pads the text (adding calories) but adds no real meaning (no nutritional value). Here are some other ways to trim the fat from excess writing:
- Avoid the expletives you don’t think about (like “there” and “it”)
Don’t incentivize prolix writing.It’s surprising how often wordiness is encouraged. It starts in academic settings, where word- or page-count requirements encourage young writers to pad their work with excess writing to fill up the space. Graduates then carry that bad habit to their employers, where organizational leaders may still inadvertently incentivize lengthier works. Paying writers per word is an obvious example, but indirect incentives can still be at play. Does your organization treat longer documents as evidence of greater productivity? Then you’ll encourage more prolix writing.
Revise.The real writing happens in revisions. Often, the first draft is more of a “brain dump” than a concise document. That’s fine, as long as the writer and his or her colleagues keep working through a feedback and editing process that results in a polished, fine-tuned, and economical document. Don’t be afraid to get some help to strengthen this process: editing is a skill distinct from writing and needs dedicated learning to master.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations. Links: Internal