Goldilocks writing: how to figure out the balance between "too much" and "too little"

             

Dec. 4, 2017

If the bears from “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” wrote technical or engineering documents, Goldilocks would be on the search for just the right amount of content, neither too little nor too much. But how do you strike the right balance?
 
Sometimes we write too little: “Thx,” we say in response to a job well-done, the brevity of the “thanks” message undermining its impact.
 
Other times, we write way (way, way) too much: padding, fluff, redundancies, and excess description can cause messages to mushroom into unwieldy treatises whose volume makes them indigestible.
 
The first step is to follow the basic best practices of writing. We cover these in our writing courses, but many of these concise writing tips are also common sense:
 
  • Eliminate unnecessary words and redundancies (if you can remove words from a sentence and the sentence retains its meaning, that probably means the words weren't necessary)
  • Avoid clichés and buzzwords (language changes rapidly and we need to consider the longevity of our documents)
  • Simplify overly long or complex sentences (be careful, though: a sentence is too long only if it must be read more than once to be understood)
  • Favor specifics and details over generics (writing generically can result in redundancy)
  • Limit background and contextual information to the essential (consider your readers: what do they know and what do they need to know?)
 You also want to avoid turning your writing into a “brain dump,” as The Huffington Post describes it. That’s when you try to be comprehensive but inadvertently drown your message in a sea of excess and even irrelevant information.
 
On the other hand, it’s easy to go too far in the other direction, too, and end up with pieces that lack the detail, background, or context needed to have the intended impact.
 
Take that “Thx” message. Explanation is not bad if it helps the reader understand what you’re trying to say or will enhance the message. A thank-you message will have much more impact if the author specifies what they’re appreciating.
 
Sometimes that explanation is critical. You wouldn’t expect a prospective customer to commit to a sale unless they had all the pertinent information, would you? Any written communication must contain all the information and arguments needed for the reader to take your desired action. In these cases, insufficient content can backfire.
 
To ensure you write enough, consider
 
  1. The reader’s viewpoint.
  1. The goal/desired action of the communication.
  1.  What information the reader will need to take that action or otherwise execute the goal
 
Ultimately, getting writing “just right” is a skill that can be developed with practice and feedback. The worst thing you can do is mindlessly hash out a message or piece of content. Take the time to think through how to write concisely and clearly, solicit feedback, and develop your writing skills. Before you know it, you’ll be writing with a skill that would make Goldilocks proud.
 
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 25 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.