By David Rose, Director LACS Training Brussels
Is the quote above from the latest best-selling book on effective professional writing skills?
Perhaps surprisingly, no.
It’s actually from a memo a British Prime Minister sent his cabinet of ministers about 70 years ago.
This quote serves to clearly illustrate one crucial point: conciseness or economy of words is – and has for a long time been – a central feature of professionally effective written English.
A longer, more ‘wordy’ construction is not more formal or professional.
It is, unfortunately, simply clumsy and often unclear: counterproductive to clearly communicating your intended messages and with little or no impact.
“Ah” you might say, “I work in an international environment where most of my audience is made up of capable but non-native speakers of English. Isn’t that quote only relevant to exclusively English native-speaking audiences?”
In a nutshell, no.
Bearing in mind the majority of your audience might well have English as a second (or perhaps third?) language… it is even more important your text communicates your intended messages as clearly as possible, while of course still respecting the required level of formality and diplomacy.
You have to avoid unnecessarily overcomplicated or overloaded phrases that need to be re-read to be fully understood.
Equally – and self-evidently – if your text is representing your organisation to an external audience, it’s also essential it projects a suitably positive, professional image.
On its own, however, this ‘what and why of conciseness’ doesn’t actually help you in practical terms to be more concise in your writing, does it?
You also need the ‘how’.
Recognising English favours a more concise style, how can you achieve an improved level of conciseness in your writing?
Well, here are six practical principles you can apply to help you produce consistently more concise – and consequently clear and influential – text:
1. Limit load
2. Avoid ‘fluff’
Some ways of expressing your intended messages are obviously better than others, but which?
You should avoid ‘fluff’ (‘overcomplicated’ phrases):
Remember –these more economic alternatives have the same meaning and are no less formal or professional… simply clearer.
3. Eliminate ‘padding’
Often, writers feel obliged to include words that can be simply cut with no change in meaning, tone or grammatical correctness – termed ‘padding’.
This is especially, but not only, common in more official and/or external documents.
Applied on a whole text level, this technique alone can reduce a document’s overall length by 10% or more – helping to raise clarity and impact.
4. Favour active not passive forms
The passive voice, per se, doesn’t make a text more formal. If anything, it often simply makes the intended message more complex and therefore less clear.
Consider these two versions of the same extract:
The ‘active’ version offers three advantages:
- Clearer – it now more clearly informs the reader about not only the what but also the who in each case
- Less ‘heavy’ and so more ‘readable’ – it communicates the main messages in an equally professional yet less complex form of language
- More economic – it uses c. 15% less words to say more
When to use the passive
The passive does, however, have its uses… e.g. when we need to be diplomatic.
Compare: “An error was made…” [passive] vs. “Finance made an error…” [active]
The passive here allows you to report what without specifying who, so avoiding direct blame.
5. Use the Saxon genitive (‘s/s’) or compound noun
Noun phrases – i.e. phrases using the construction ‘the <noun> of/for/in the <noun>’ – typify the ‘heavy’ style of academic writing and legal drafting:
In parallel with general English, standard professional writing doesn’t favour this ‘heavy’ style of construction.
Instead, we use the shorter Saxon Genitive (a.k.a. the ‘possessive’) – or compound noun phrase:
As you can see, this still maintains the same professional tone and exact meaning of each example but drastically reduces length.
When scaled up to the whole text level, consistently using the Saxon Genitive and compound noun phrase significantly reduces the length of the text, raises clarity and maximises impact.
6. Use linking structures (well)
These are the ‘glue’ that bind concise ‘pieces’ (sentences or parts of sentences) together to form clear, coherent text.
Well-written professional English connects ideas in a number of ways. The most common way is through conjunctions e.g. ‘and’, ‘but’.
I’m sure you’re already aware of the common groups of ‘linking words’:
When using these, you must carefully bear in mind two important considerations:
Links of identical meaning and grammatical use can have marked differences in tone.
Each link is simply a tool to achieve clearer and more effective text. As with all tools, each is best used in the most suitable way.
I assume none of you would try to use a hammer to open a tin – equally each link you choose must be ‘fit for purpose’.
Conciseness: The ‘What’
You have six practical principles to help you consistently produce more concise text:
Conciseness: The ‘Why’
The higher level of conciseness you can achieve through consistently applying these six principles means you will produce clearer and therefore more influential messages.
Now it’s over to you to make best use of them in your professional writing!
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