Two Techniques That Help You
Embrace Brevity

Embrace Brevity

Editor’s Note: Last week, Muhammad Saleem submitted an article to Copyblogger on how to incorporate brevity into your writing. I decided to break up the article into two parts, and demonstrate that with the use of:

(1) a descriptive headline;
(2) a short anecdote,
(3) a famous quote from Strunk and White, and
(4) a link to another article about Steven King

you can communicate a salient point in only 59 words and still provide additional information via links.

What follows are Muhammad’s techniques and examples of how to say more with fewer words. Enjoy. – Brian

It’s harder to be brief than it is to go on at length when writing. We want our ideas fully communicated, so we keep going without editing for conciseness. But as Abraham Lincoln demonstrated with the Gettysburg Address, a tightly written text can often be much more profound than a much longer effort.

Is it worth the extra effort to ruthlessly edit? Well, if we take the time to omit needless words, sentences and paragraphs from an article or landing page, we communicate more concepts in less time and space. The point of brevity is not to say less, it’s to say what needs to be said effectively and concisely.

Here are two ways to do that:

Cut Extraneous Words

The first method is to omit unnecessary words. The Elements of Style says that “the fact that,” “who is” and “which was” are the most commonly used needless words. For the former phrase you can often use a single word, and for the latter two simply omit them.

Here are examples:

Before: Because of the fact that people benefited from reading my article, I decided to follow up with another.

After: Because people benefited from reading my article, I wrote a follow up.

Before: Brian, who is a writer and a consultant, is an interesting person.

After: Brian, a writer and consultant, is an interesting person.

Before: The article, which was written by Brian, was well received.

After: Brian’s article was well received.

You’ll notice in the last example that needless words were removed and the sentence was also restructured. That’s the second tactic.

Restructure Your Sentences

Polonius told us that “brevity is the soul of wit” in Act 2, Scene 2, of Shakepeare’s Hamlet, but it took him seven lines of babble to do it. Shakespeare was being ironic, of course, but let’s see a demonstration of true brevity based on a description of Macbeth.

Before: Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king (55 words).

After: Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and succeeding him as king of Scotland (25 words).

By reordering and combining the main thoughts into one sentence, you convey the same information and cut the number of words in half. It takes more work, but it’s worth it if you value effective communication.

Say More With Fewer Words

When you write this way, you can actually say more without dragging out the piece beyond the reader’s attention span. Be concise and your readers will thank you.

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Reader Comments (72)

  1. says

    Great post Muhammed. Do you think that some of those unnecessary words can still be used effectively for stylistic reasons?

    Could unnecessary words be used to control the rhythm of the writing or the pace at which someone reads? Or are there better ways to achieve both?

  2. says

    I was always losing marks in school for the way I wrote in incomplete sentences and with long flowing streaming of information seperated only by commas…but with blogging it’s a little more acceptable!

  3. says

    Steven I won’t answer for Mu, but the tricky thing about brevity is the definition of “unnecessary.” Knowing what’s truly necessary and what’s not is what separates good writers from great writers.

    That being said, conciseness is usually valued over flowery prose, especially in online commercial communications. It all depends on your objectives.

    Daniel, brevity does not equal sentence fragments and run-on sentences. I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong idea.

  4. says

    Thanks for the post. I’m often reminding myself and other copywriters at my company of a good exercise: write something; revisit it when it is done; try to cut it in half and see if the gist of the message remains.

    This is one of the greatest challenges facing any copywriter: just how terse and tight is your approach?


  5. says

    Muhammed – Excellent post on a very important topic. I’m going to use this as inspiration for more concise writing on my own blog.

    Brian – Well done cutting the article in half. The first section was very capable of driving the point home, and an excellent example of practicing what you preach.

    I’m surprised you didn’t link to your post about Hemingway and his 6 word story. That man had this down to a science.

    Thanks for the great work, both of you,

    – Mason

  6. Adam says

    Good post. Let me try.

    Before: When you write this way, you can actually say more without dragging out the piece beyond the reader’s attention span. Be concise and your readers will thank you.

    After: When you write this way, you say more without dragging out the piece beyond the reader’s attention span. Be concise. Your readers will thank you.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist!

  7. says

    I agree with almost all in the post. However, I think your last Macbeth example is more high-school-English-essay type writing, rather than for a blog article. The “before” is choppy, but I still would separate ideas into sentences or paragraphs.

    But like you say, it depends on your blog.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

  8. says

    In contrast to the paid-per-word mentality that persists online, real-life writing jobs (like mine) are dependent on strong self-editing. Brevity is a marketable skill in print and film; and, no doubt, savvy web writers will learn its virtues in time — but don’t look at my own babble-filled blog for evidence!

  9. says

    Thanks Brian. That’s my feeling too and I don’t mean to imply that I think flowery prose is good. I’m thinking of the difference between say Hemingway and Faulkner.

    Both great writers with vastly different styles. One using a minimum of words, the other using quite a few more. I would never say Faulkner is using a lot of unnecessary words, but I could imagine an editor trying to cut back on how many are there.

  10. says

    Great advice, but I do always worry in my own writing about whether being brief is at the cost of interesting (as opposed to robotically functional) prose?

  11. says

    Like Brian said, it depends upon our objectives. If we’re trying to win a Pulitzer, brevity may be less important than style.

    I can think of quite a few writers who rambled beautifully. Of course, most bloggers (myself included) just aren’t good enough to get away with it.

  12. says

    Adam re-wrote:
    “When you write this way, you say more without dragging out the piece beyond the reader’s attention span. Be concise. Your readers will thank you.”

    You can go further:

    Writing this way says more without challenging your readers’ attentions spans. Do this, and they’ll thank you.

  13. Roshawn says

    Just one question: should brevity be stressed when writing a novel?

    Nice post. Definitely worth practicing. :-)

  14. says

    I have worked with a couple of brilliant but wordy product managers. Their text was always quite good, but had to be heavily edited for brevity. It’s as if they were presenting a story about their product, while users were most likely looking for hard solid facts.

    A real-life example: starting a sentence with something like “in order to be able to”. You can simply cut that, and the sentence is simpler and more precise.

    The above example may come indirectly from Finnish language. It’s the way the writer thinks inside his head. Short and concise is good advice especially for non-native writers.

  15. says

    Hi Muhammed.

    I agree with all the things about brevity but the last Macbeth example. Literature is not same as a sales copy or a news paper report. Literature is not there for those who are in a hurry (read it and be done with it) because it is not about the story, it’s about the symphony of the story. When you are listening to the music, especially classical music, you’ll notice there are so many variations of the same piece, and all the variations, usually, are equally enjoyable. Sticking to the basic tunes would reduce a 30-minute performance to a one-minute dud thing. So in Macbeth’s case, any given day I’d prefer the first example, not the second one.

    Yes, while writing a sales letter or an article in the newspaper brevity is of utmost importance.

  16. says

    Amrit, the Macbeth example is not “literature.” It’s a horribly written summary of the character of Macbeth, not an excerpt from Hamlet. There’s no symphony to those choppy sentences at all. It reads like a 6th grade book report or a really bad blog post.

    Are you under the impression that the first example is taken directly from Hamlet? That is was written by Shakespeare? Trust me, if you haven’t read any Shakespeare yourself, he was a much better writer than that, even taking into account the prose of his time.

    I’m really flabbergasted by your comment.

  17. says

    Amrit, this is Shakespeare:

    This business is well ended.
    My liege, and madam, to expostulate
    What majesty should be, what duty is,
    Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
    Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
    Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
    And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
    I will be brief: your noble son is mad.

  18. says

    Hi Brian.

    Thanks for the Shakespeare take, and no, I didn’t think that was from Shakespeare…I mentioned literature because of Macbeth.

    I think my take came from this general bias that pithy is always good. I’ve seen text being murdered just in order to eliminate words. So in that sense I still prefer the first version. May be it sounds like a sixth grader’s report, but it has those halts…I don’t know, it’s a feeling. May be I’m totally on the wrong side.

    I’m sorry if you felt flabbergasted but there was no need to feel that way…it’s just an opinion :-). Muhammed has an opinion, you have an opinion, all people who leave comments here have an opinion, and if I try very hard, even I have an opinion.

    Shakespeare has been a challenge I must confess. I don’t know why I’ve never been able to read any of his works. It’s a pity, especially when it is so easily available.

  19. says

    Brevity is exactly what American Sign Language is all about, we do not use the is, be, was, as words in our language. I would recommend people learn ASL grammar to improve their ability cut down on excessive words as well as ability to restructure words. You can learn a lot from a silent language because written language is silent too.

  20. says

    Keeping one’s copy short and snappy is clearly important. The only real reason for reading anything (non fictional, at least) is to communicate the point – why not take your audience there as soon as possible?

    In reality though, sometimes the message is the journey. Varying sentence structure, lingering on points of emphasis, etc. are ways to build anticipation in your readers – albeit by sometimes adding non vital elements.

    Having said all that, though, I am a fan (not a good practitioner!) of keeping things simple. When I get wrapped up in my writing I often think about this poem entitled “Fleas”:

    Adam Had’em

  21. says

    This method is alike with Ken Evoy’s Guide to better preselling method. He need us to make a short & clear sentences with an active tense not past tense.

    Great post, Brian!

  22. Brad says

    First Draft:
    This was a great post. I was searching for something like this because I am often teased about my verbose communication. I feel, especially lately that this has been a barrier to people listening to my ideas. I especially liked Bain Smith’s comment:
    – write something; revisit it when it is done; try to cut it in half and see if the gist of the message remains.

    Great post. Wordiness causes my ideas to be ignored.
    Bain’s method of reducing a message is very helpful.

  23. says

    Excellent article. We recently went through our site and removed a lot of ‘fluff’, but anything that can help us further this goal has to be good.

  24. Shane says

    I like your message but think the example used is ineffective. The ‘tighter’ Macbeth description left me confused and overwhelmed while the original was more clear and conveyed the meaning.

    Brevity seems terse, abrupt and angry while speaking but has the opposite effect in writing.

    PS I edited 7 words out of this comment. How’s that for brevity?

  25. says

    Thank you! And I would stress that any writer of anything memorize Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style.” It won’t take long to read or memorize because it’s short. (But get something before the 1997 edition. Ironically, the editors of that one didn’t learn the lessons.)

  26. says

    Once my lecturer approached me after my semester exam, told me that I wrote too short even though it was quite well written. I got lower grade because of that.

    Lesson learned, DO NOT ever use this method for your course work.

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