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Trim The “Fat” from Your Writing

One of the most common problems in business writing is that sentences are simply too  long. If you want people to read your messages, make sure the sentences average fewer than 20 words.  Too many business writers use cumbersome words, ramble, or give the reader too much  information. Here are five concrete tips to help you overcome bad habits.

Trim the Fat from your sentences
Sentences in business documents are often just too long—with heavy nouns, wordy phrases, passive voice, and unnecessary information. To be readily understood, sentences need a clear focus, flow and form. Here’s what you can do to strip the dead weight from your sentences and enhance their clarity.

Turn weighty nouns into energetic verbs.
Realize that verbs are the strongest words in the sentence.  They give direction and spur action. Choose concise, energetic, concrete verbs: Prefer use to utilize; conclude to draw a conclusion, send to furnish or forward. The effect: a tighter, easy-to-visualize message.

So put your sentences on a diet.
First draft: The manager utilized a new procedure to conduct a review of the project. (13 words)
Improved: The manager used a new procedure to review the project. (10 words)

Give information once, avoiding needless repetition.
When we talk, we repeat ideas. When we write, we should exert more control by saying things once. Avoid redundancies like consensus of opinion, advance plans, different varieties, basic fundamentals,  past history and current status. Watch out for repetitious phrases like In addition, we also have or In my opinion, I think. For longer documents, use an outline so that information in one section is not repeated elsewhere. Shorten sentences by making them active, not passive. When the subject of your sentence performs the action up front, you create the active voice. Example: The manager made a decision. When the subject is delayed or unknown, you create the passive voice. Example: The decision was made by the manager. Or simply: The decision was made.  The active voice works well because it’s shorter and more direct—but the  passive voice has its uses.

So put your sentences on a diet.
Passive: For the problem to be fixed, the nozzle should be put in the fill pipe. (15 words)
Active: To fix the problem, put  the nozzle in the fill pipe. (11 words)

Passive: It is considered essential that we attend the meeting. (9 words)
Active: We must attend the meeting. (5 words)

Use lists to reduce verbiage.
When the substance of a paragraph can be expressed in a list, do away with the narrative format. Well-constructed lists are clean and easy to comprehend. If a list works, use it.

So put your sentences on a diet:
Narrative format: We have organized our proposal in the following way: Section 1 of our proposal describes our approach to completing the project within the specified time frame. Section 2 of our proposal is an in-depth description of the work to be accomplished. Section 3 of our proposal contains the pricing information requested.(48 words)
List format: Our proposal is organized as follows:
I.  Time frame
II.  In-depth description of work  
III.  Pricing information(14 words)

Note that it’s not enough simply to make a list.  The words and phrases you use to create the list require careful construction. To ensure comprehension, writers should be sure all items in the list have: 1)similar  grammatical form, 2) equivalent weight, 3) logical order, and 4)  relevance. Note that the three items in the list above are all phrases with a noun as key word: frame, description, information.

Limit information to what your reader actually needs to know.
Whenever you write, decide at the outset the information your reader needs to know if you are to accomplish your purpose. Make an outline including that information only—unless, of course, legal or other considerations require you to include additional material. Too much information can be damaging by muddling the main point or raising unnecessary questions.  Apply the “need to know” principle to e-mail messages as well. Trim the fat—good advice for personal health and vitality, to be sure—and excellent advice for the health and vitality of your business messages!

 

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Unless otherwise attributed, all material is written and edited by Susan B. Kline. Copyright © Susan B. Kline 2011. All Rights Reserved. I invite you to reprint material from this website for educational purposes, provided this copyright notice ("Written and edited by Susan B. Kline, © Susan B. Kline [year]. All Rights Reserved.") and a link to sbkline.com is included in the credits.

 

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