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Concise Writing?
November 27, 2010 11:54 AM   Subscribe

How to Be Concise When Writing Personal Messages/e-mails?

I find myself often rambling (I'm really a talker) and I really have a lot to relate to.

Usually, after I finishing relating, I try to balance my content with more feedback and follow-up questions.

Some people (e.g.: my darling Lit. Major friends) would reply pretty much similar in length, or slightly shorter. Some other people, I think they find lengthiness very off-putting.

I don't want to be inconsiderate of other people's time as I understand it truly requires a lot of effort in reading longer letters. I try to shorten paragraphs sometimes but it fails frequently.

Do you like longer letters or shorter letters?
Do you worry about the length of your content?
What can i do to keep it short and sweet but not curt?
posted by easilyconfused to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh man, I am you. Except I don't ramble.

I write essays.

My ex used to tell me that when he got a letter from me he could actually picture me drafting an outline and fleshing it out before sending it. Whatever, I get my point across when I plan.

Maybe it would be helpful to start setting a sentence goal for yourself. Make it a game. Don't go over 10 sentences for a normal letter, maybe 20 for a more thought-intensive one. Be cheerful, loose, but know that you have to keep yourself within a limit.

Personally, so long as I can follow the train of thought, I don't really care how long and meandering a letter is. But I like to read, so IDK. If there are more than 5 paragraphs, though, then I get a little antsy.
posted by patronuscharms at 12:00 PM on November 27, 2010


Well, for me, it depends on why you're writing to me. If you're a friend, sending me a friendly letter, I enjoy the long rambly ones. If you're sending me a work email, I'd like to know what you want/need pretty much straight out. Necessary background information is, well, necessary. :)

I don't worry about the length of my content in and of itself. I worry about the length of my content relative to the information I think I need to convey. I tend to worry more about whether my answer is complete than whether it is too long. This stems from the fact that I have generally been pretty good at summary writing all my life, so being concise is not really a challenge.

The trick to being brief without being curt is in the tone. You can make something friendly by simply adding a brief polite sentence to the beginning or end. You can make it friendly by tailoring your response to your reader.

In short, there is no universal rule that I can think of, but if you ask yourself, can I say this in fewer words, that might be a good start.

(you'll note that this is not a brief answer. But it sticks to your specific questions)
posted by bardophile at 12:17 PM on November 27, 2010


1: Depends on the nature of the communication. I don't want an essay from my landlord, but I do want an essay from the friend I haven't seen in five years.

2: No, but I don't have a general problem with brevity.

3: Use fewer words, but do use small conversational interjections to make the tone conversational. Like, "So, did you found that form I needed?" Is softer than, "I still need that form."
posted by cmoj at 12:24 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


five.sentenc.es
posted by angermanagement at 12:35 PM on November 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I usually ask myself, "Is this [word/sentence/paragraph] vital to conveying my point?" If no, it's axed.
posted by emilyd22222 at 12:53 PM on November 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I ramble a lot too :(

I have discovered that my rambling has a couple main causes:
-I usually try to explain the reasoning behind what I am saying or doing. This all depends on your target. Some people either don't care or already understand the logic, others need the reasoning to process the thoughts. If you go too far on this path, it turns in to a rabbit hole pretty quickly.
-I often use words that back off the "volume" of what I am trying to say. This can make my writing less concise, more difficult to process, and does not inspire the same confidence (Examples from above: "usually try", "often... trying", "this can" ... if I pay attention, I can scrap these for more affirmative alternatives).

I battle with this all the time, in speech and in writing. I am super critical of it, and try my damnedest to just shut up when I notice myself slipping.

Good luck!
posted by milqman at 12:59 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Please know that some recipients -- thinking of myself here -- are inundated with voice mail messages, FB messages, email messages, snail mail, etc., etc., etc. I have a LOT of incoming data every single day. Some of it is personal, much of it is work related, some of it is family, but it's constant. Constant. When your recipient is a person like me, if your email is looong and meandering, I feel sad (literally) and tired. I wonder if you have any sense of the difficulty (for me) of the time/commitment/effort you're apparently expecting of me. Often I do not/cannot read such an email, yet I feel guilty about it.

On preview -- I know that some people *really* want to explain the process of how they got to where they got, the reasoning, rationale, path, etc. I don't need to know A, B, C, D, therefore 64. I need to know 64, with *maybe* a summary sentence re why. But generally I trust you to tell me 64, and if I need to double check I'll ask for more explanation.

Honestly, I don't know if people can really change their communication style. If that is the case -- it might be the case -- then all we can do is tolerate one another.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 1:13 PM on November 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


When you're done writing your long ambling email, delete it (or c&p to a temp document if you're a wimp).

Now write the same email again. The result will be much shorter, with all the important information intact and most of waffle missing.

"Please forgive this very long and drawn out letter, I did not have time to write you a short one." - Blaise Pascal
posted by Lorc at 1:48 PM on November 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


Figure out the character count for your shorter emails that seem to have been well-received, then set that character limit for future emails. Strive to be concise on the first draft, but you will almost certainly go over. Then be ruthless in making cuts. Replace big words with shorter ones, take out unnecessary adjectives, simplify phrasing, and remove anything redundant. Recount and cut some more, repeating the process until you're within the limit.

I've had to do this a bunch recently while filling in character-limited "contact us" boxes for various websites. ("Please give a detailed description of your issue in 200 characters or less.") It's annoying and doesn't leave a lot of room for colorful writing, but in most cases you can get your main point across without too much difficulty.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 1:52 PM on November 27, 2010


I have come to dislike rambly talky email. It is a problem in my life.

Remove all qualifiers, waffle words, and "justs". You will be surprised at what this will do.

Remove all non-specific questions ("how are you doing?", also unanswerable filler like "how is city X?").

Remove all "we should X sometime" and any other unspecific wishy stuff.

Remove as many instances of self-justification as possible. You bought a new shirt? Cool. I don't need to know that it was on sale or that you feel a certain way about spending the money. I am happy for you without that information.

You will get more responses and be received better for making this effort. Good luck!
posted by fake at 2:33 PM on November 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


It just takes time and effort. Lose your attachment to your dependent clauses, qualifiers, asides, all the contours that get in your reader's way.

Make every word justify its existence. If your meaning gets across without any given word, kill it.

Rewrite, walk away, reread, rewrite. Repeat until you're at the bone.

Budget in time to do this. It's worth the time. Without that time investment you waste time on miscommunication.
posted by argybarg at 2:59 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


The more words you use, the less likely it is that anyone will read them.

Consider the following example:
1. FIRE!!!!

2. Oh dear, do you remember how I meant to replace the smoke alarm's batteries during the time change like everyone always says? But we couldn't find 9 volt batteries? And then I forgot? What a pain! Anyway, I think we should probably get our things and go now, don't you?
As readers, we instinctively know that the more important something is, the fewer words you'll use to say it.

I do a lot of this kind of "messaging" work with business clients. My advice is to write everything the way you want. Then go back and cut 50%. Then look at it again, and cut another 10%.

Imagine that you're looking at a Victorian chair, with the froofaraw and the gingerbread and the tatting and the antimacassar and the embroidery. Imagine that you are tasked with removing everything which the chair doesn't need to perform its function. You can cut 90% of the stuff off that chair, and still be able to sit on it.

Do that with your messages: cut off everything but the seat, the legs, and maybe even the back.

For example, I can easily edit your question down to the following, without losing any of the meaning:
I find myself often rambling (I'm really a talker) and I really have a lot to relate to. What can i do to keep it short and sweet but not curt?
posted by ErikaB at 3:19 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't mind long emails as much as I mind emails that make me scan for the goods. Tell me what you want to tell me first. Bottom line at the top. You need me to work Saturday? Fine. That's your first sentence.

Explanation and background info goes after that, if you're the type who likes to explain or I need to know. If I need to know, say up at the top that I need to know. If I don't need to know, say near the top something like, "if you're interested in the long, boring details..." Sometimes I am, sometimes not. I like a warning that there are No Action Items Beyond This Point.

Maybe a paragraph of pleasantries at the bottom. Contact info. Done.
posted by ctmf at 5:10 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


How to Be Concise When Writing Personal Messages/e-mails?
-"Practice" - re analyze what you have said can you make it shorter?
-Can you go over it again and take out something?
-Cut out stuff that repeats. Do a word count of describing "x" a certain way and see if you can change that?
-Does the person receiving this need to know everything you have mentioned?

I find myself often rambling (I'm really a talker) and I really have a lot to relate to.
And that's great! But, as a person receiving it, do I enjoy reading "everything" you have to relate to? It is making a point or adding nostalgia and fluff?
Personally, I love analogies so when people send me stuff in analogies which far and few do, I love them! That's why I love reading askmefi

Usually, after I finishing relating, I try to balance my content with more feedback and follow-up questions.
Are you trying to write people personal emails or are you sending the email with a purpose of critiquing a write up? If I am your friend, do I need to critique everything you have sent?

Or is it an idea we are discussing - plus if I don't respond with long emails and engage in a discourse and if I don't reward you by letting you know that I like long emails, then why send me a long one?
If you do, you're not thinking with my feedback or my lack of feedback in mind, you are thinking only with your perspective. That does not lead to the best conversations when you are not attempting to understand the other person. :).

Some people (e.g.: my darling Lit. Major friends) would reply pretty much similar in length, or slightly shorter. Some other people, I think they find lengthiness very off-putting.See previous

I don't want to be inconsiderate of other people's time as I understand it truly requires a lot of effort in reading longer letters. I try to shorten paragraphs sometimes but it fails frequently.
Only if you fail will you know you're doing something wrong. Do you sit and analyze each sentence and try and re-write and condense your paragraphs? If you are not doing any of those, you are not engaging in an effort - that is a failure to try leading to a failure to write concisely.

Do you like longer letters or shorter letters?
I write depending on how much I think my point is being made. Often, it gets to be too much. For example, writing here, I don't redo a lot of my writing to add perspective but when writing a personal or professional email, I mentally judge who I am writing to and offer my perspective on the topic. Some folks aren't into reading as much.

Do you worry about the length of your content?
No. But, I trim down the emails.

What can i do to keep it short and sweet but not curt?
Slightly off topic as I've addressed this above - some folks I write a long response to and they never get back, them I don't send another email to unless I need to. Some folks, I send a long one get a short response back, recognize they've got the point or their irritated. Some folks are some folks, meh!

If you notice you've asked the same question twice?
How to Be Concise When Writing Personal Messages/e-mails?
What can i do to keep it short and sweet but not curt?
Once at the start and at the end - it seems you are just not stepping away from what you are writing and I have done that. See my one and only question asked to askmefi and notice how I have rambled and hit multiple stones without much structure.
1> It'll be easier for me to analyze it now due to the time passed
2> You'll be able to edit it better and condense it better because you are not as involved in the content as I am.

posted by iNfo.Pump at 5:28 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oops, somehow my browser messed up while doing a spell check and clicking submit. Copy and paste it to word or textedit and remove the strike using the font setting.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 5:30 PM on November 27, 2010


iNfo.Pump, I thought you used all the strike to show me how to be concise. I went, wow, genius! XD
posted by easilyconfused at 6:17 PM on November 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I like your interpretation :)

It does apply to the last paragraph.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 7:37 PM on November 27, 2010


Short. Yes. Trim.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 7:49 PM on November 27, 2010


Depends on the audience. For business or school, or anything where you're trying to work with others to accomplish things: be brief. Rarely should an email go longer than about 15 lines. You need to make your main points or questions impossible to miss; do this by cutting the chatty narrative, and by the way you arrange the text:

-Each main point begins its own paragraph.

-Each separate question that needs a reply gets its own line.

Use signposting phrases like "I need your help with three things:" or "Once we have finished 1 and 2 together, would you be able to do 3 by yourself?" or "If you're interested, here's how I arrived at this conclusion:" to tell the reader what your goal for each paragraph is.

A pleasant tone doesn't have to be chatty. You can include pleasantries at the beginning or end, limit them to a sentence or two, and just use a polite tone throughout.

As for how to make your own writing more concise: practice. Every message, ask yourself: suppose I had to get my points across in only 10 lines, or 5 lines, what would I cut?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:04 PM on November 27, 2010


I second Lorc's response. When I need to be concise, the easiest way is to get my thoughts on paper, delete them, and then retype them. They always come out a lot more succinctly and clearly because i've taken time to make them clear in my head via the draft.
posted by zug at 10:39 PM on November 27, 2010


Long e-mails stay in my inbox, unanswered, until some day when I have hours and can tackle them all at once. I answer shorter ones right away.

I usually pretend like the person I'm writing to is going through 50 emails, and unless I get to the point right away, I'm going to lose them.

They're really two completely different types of correspondence: one that's like an old-fashioned letter, and the other that's more 'quick and dirty in the era of Twitter.' The first, which I love, are usually just personal and have no specific or timely requests. Sticking to that second type is key if there are any questions or time-sensitive issues. The first takes a while to respond to, but the second actually helps me get things done.
posted by blazingunicorn at 2:56 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


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