How can I learn to write concisely with more clarity?
July 10, 2018 10:17 AM   Subscribe

I tend to ask questions like the one presented in this question. I know I can be a bit wordy and unclear at times, and I'd like to change that. How can I learn to write concisely with more clarity?

Like it says above, I'd like to learn to write more concisely and with more clarity. Are there books, online courses, anything that can teach me to write slightly differently? Is there a checklist of strategies to edit for clarity? A list of specific guidelines to follow? I really liked the answer in the mentioned thread where one mefite explained how journalists are trained to write - perhaps something along those lines? This is mostly for work purposes (ie my emails should really get to the point quicker, but i feel i need to explain why I'm asking...) but I'd also like to improve the quality and usefulness of the odd blog post I write.

What I don't want however, is to be abrupt and rude and too concise in my writing. My former boss did this - his emails came off unintentionally rude and demanding more often than not. It infuriated me, despite the emails being short and to the point. I know he didn't mean to project that rudeness, but he did. I definitely want to avoid that scenario; I'd rather be too wordy and unclear than that. In a perfect world, I'd like to be concise, clear and friendly.

Any thoughts or ideas on how I can accomplish this? Thanks all!
posted by cgg to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
In a perfect world, I'd like to be concise, clear and friendly.

Is there somebody you know who writes that way? Because if so, my usual trick is to find somebody writing the way I want, and then break down the style. What turns of phrase do they use? What kind of rhetorical approach do they use? Why do I think it's concise and clear? What makes it feel friendly? Then, once I've broken down the style into working points, I keep samples on hand, so that I can turn to it whenever I'm writing and read a couple pages when I'm getting off track.

(When I'm writing for work, my style hero is basically the the Michael Grant translation of Tacitus's Annals, which I keep in my office to this day. It's incredibly clear and concise, though not, ah, very friendly. But your model doesn't have to be a published work. When I'm drafting for one particular boss of mine, I have a couple long e-mails from her that I look over, so that I can remind myself of how she sounds in writing.)
posted by joyceanmachine at 10:36 AM on July 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Question or main point comes first.

Clarifying details come later.

Imagine that you are writing a post or question or something for Metafilter or Reddit or whatever. At the very end you have a "tl;dr". Lead with that. Assume that everyone is going to stop reading after the first sentence.

This won't always work, because people sometimes don't read the important clarifying details, but if they won't read the important clarifying details then it doesn't really matter whether you put them first, last, or leave them out altogether.

Also, ask the the right question. This is the XY problem, where we ask about X, but are really interested in the answer to Y. We ask about X because we assume that X is actually the relevant part of Y. This is hard to spot in your own writing, but very easy to spot in other people's writing and I don't really have a solution here, beyond looking at your question and asking yourself "If I get an answer to this question and nothing else, is my problem solved?"
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:38 AM on July 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

I write for Salesforce, which has a friendly but direct tone. They offer a free training on their voice and tone. There are 3 units, but this one might be the most useful to you.

If the link doesn’t work for some reason, just go to Salesforce Trailhead and search for “voice and tone.”
posted by greermahoney at 10:43 AM on July 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

Take this question, and reduce the word count by half while preserving the semantic and social content.

Do that type of exercise often, until you write more concisely.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:43 AM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

For me, when my writing lacks clarity it's because my thinking lacks clarity. As soon as I feel a sentence getting wordy or meandering, I ask myself "What are you really trying to say here?" That forces me to identify the point I want to make, which then makes the writing clearer. YMMV of course.
posted by DrGail at 10:45 AM on July 10, 2018 [10 favorites]

What I don't want however, is to be abrupt and rude and too concise in my writing.

My general approach, which seems natural for me but might not be for others, is to write the super-blunt email and then dress it up with a lot more manners. And being clear, especially in a work setting, between asking and demanding and needing and wanting. So like rude boss email can be like "I need those TPS reports in the next hour." and polite boss email can be like "Can you please get me the TPS reports you are working on? I need them before five. Thank you." and if you wind up having to interact with people who view the second email as somehow not being specific/clear enough, you can ratchet down the politeness and ratchet up the "No this is SRS BZNS" aspect of it for those people. The important thing is that there's no such thing as an email that is objectively clear for everyone, but there are conventions that make things more clear in most situations. Some of this depends on who you are talking to, your role relative to them and why you are writing stuff. A blog post that someone might read to pique their interest is different from an email where you are telling someone at your office about a thing you need them to do.

I think the most important thing is understanding that bulleted lists and stuff that uses formatting as well as language to convey information, can be one useful way of being clear. So think of other aspects of your presentation that might also help lend this clarity.
posted by jessamyn at 10:54 AM on July 10, 2018 [9 favorites]

!read Hemingway
posted by speakeasy at 11:04 AM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

This online plain language style guide is a very good reference and has a clickable table of contents for easy navigation.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:17 AM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

The journalistic technique referred to in the other thread is called the inverted pyramid, if you want to read more about it.

Another useful journalistic method is to imagine you have to pay for every word (which, effectively, with newsprint, you do). Delete every single word that doesn’t absolutely have to be there. Go through each paragraph multiple times, you’ll peobably find when you’re starting out that you can make more cuts each time, or save words by rephrasing. Ditto every sentence or clause that is not essential (or at least, drop non-essentials further down the piece).

In work emails, I stop this sounding abrupt by starting with a friendly sentence to set a positive tone, then it’s down to business for the rest of the email. Most times when I read emails that come across as rude, it’s not because they’re concise, it’s because the writer has a poor attitude underlying it - they write as if their reader is stupid or irritating, or wasting their time. Being concise, but polite, is fine.

And yes, bullet points ftw.
posted by penguin pie at 11:22 AM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Some folks I follow on Twitter have recently been touting the Hemingway Editor for this.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:26 AM on July 10, 2018

Also this isn't quite what you were asking but I've found especially lately that there is a lot of language that may be imbued with meaning that I may not know about or haven't considered and it can be easy to slip into sloppy unconsidered writing by accident because of background racism and sexism and whatever in society. I read the Conscious Style Guide's newsletter that comes out every month and it helps me not only stay on top of changes in the language that may not be reflected in my nearby community but also things to keep in mind when talking to people who may have differing backgrounds from my own. It's helpful.
posted by jessamyn at 11:40 AM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice above regarding conciseness, so I'll address your concern regarding rudeness.

For emails, keep the question(s) simple and to the point. You can have a kind (but short) greeting and signature that keeps the email from being rude. People are used to brief emails in the workplace, so there is no need to "add on" in order to avoid rudeness.

The only emails I ever felt were rude were ones where a question was written like a statement with multiple question marks at the end. "Have you completed this task?" is fine. "You haven't completed this task???" is rude. (I don't find it rude from non-native English speakers but the multiple question marks make me feel like I'm being yelled at)
posted by acidnova at 12:04 PM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh - and I really recommend Essential English for Journalists, the textbook we were recommended as journo students (formerly titled Newsman's English, back when they were mostly men!). It's a good read and talks about all this stuff. I just picked it up and flicked through and now I want to throw lots of quotes onto the page, but I'll stick with this warning against run-on sentences:

"The full stop is a great help to sanity."

(full stop = period - the book's in/about British English but I think still helpful for anyone writing in English).
posted by penguin pie at 12:17 PM on July 10, 2018

How much time do you spend revising the things you write?

Because that's what it comes down to, in my experience. We can give you all kinds of tips. But to actually apply those tips in your writing, you'll need to take a moment to look things over and ask yourself which of them apply. And that doesn't stop being true — even experienced writers revise.

When I write an email for work or an AskMe answer, I usually make two or three passes: one to write it, and another one or two to check it over, tighten up the wording, and see if it needs to be reorganized. On those extra passes, I'm not looking for typos, or for the sorts of thing my English teacher in high school would have flagged as "bad grammar" — I'm looking for vagueness, wordiness, awkward phrases, and meandering structure. (I mean, if I spot typos, I'll fix those too. But they're not my focus.)

If you're worried about sounding rude, you can make that your final pass. Polite phrases are so formulaic and predictable that unless you get completely excessive with them, they won't put too much added burden on your reader. So you can write something; revise until it's tight, clear, and straightforward; and then go back through and add in some "please" and "thank you" and "if it's not too much trouble."
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:36 PM on July 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Take this question, and reduce the word count by half while preserving the semantic and social content.

Do that type of exercise often, until you write more concisely.


I am in a writing profession and often edit the work of colleagues who are not writers. I cut out A LOT of words. Passive writing also adds a lot of words and feels vague rather than concise.

It will take practice.
posted by Preserver at 1:08 PM on July 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

A common thread in all of these excellent answers is that you will not achieve your goal quickly, with any communication. The old saw about "I'm sorry this is so long; I didn't have time to make it shorter" is true, because good writing in any discipline, from a MeFi response to a novel, requires editing and rewriting.

Another thing I'm seeing a lot of here is what I learned (that is, drummed endlessly into my head) in journalism school: don't bury the lead. People don't like to do a lot of reading. Put the most important stuff (in your case, the question) right at the top. Supporting detail, potential clarification, breezy asides go beneath that. If the recipient doesn't understand the question you place at the top, they are likely to read a little deeper, where your supporting detail is.

Good luck! Be patient with yourself!
posted by lhauser at 4:44 PM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Sometimes reading your email aloud before you send it is helpful... or practicing saying your content out loud before you write it down helps to create a more natural "feel" - you'll find that you'll use similar terms in both your spoken version, and your written version. You're probably very polite in verbal conversation - so try just writing as you speak.

When I read back an email to myself aloud, I try to deliver it aloud as pleasantly as possible; if I feel uncomfortable speaking the sentence, or have to breathe too often, it's run-on and too long (like this sentence, haha).
posted by NorthernAutumn at 5:35 PM on July 10, 2018

Nthing the ideas above, plus recommending this book. The format and approach work well for me, YMMV. Nothing in it is revolutionary. I find it a concise, updated reminder of what I already know.
posted by Altomentis at 6:26 PM on July 10, 2018

Great ideas here. I'll toss in a few lessons I've learned on that's most of my job (+ meetings).

1) Figure out what you want out of the person you're emailing & why you are communicating with them over email (is your ask best done over email?). Do you want them to review and bless by X date? Is this just context that's potentially interesting for them, but no action required? Do you need them to ask their team for XYZ? Figure this out, and then state this clearly and concisely. "My ask is for you to run this past your boss, b/c I want to run this past my boss on Friday. Happy to chat live if easiest."

2) Imagine you are the person responding to your email. The best kind of email to respond to is one that you can read rapidly (between meetings!) and respond immediately (yes, no, talk to Suzanne, I'll get back to you on X date as requested, etc. etc.). How can you structure your ask so that the person writing back to you has as easy of a time as possible?

3) Build rapport in the beginning & end of the email. "Hi So and So, How was your vacation? Welcome back." "As always, please shout/ping if you need any clarifications, thanks!"

4a) Limit most of your emails to 3-4 short paragraphs TOPS, with a max of 3 sentences per paragraph...ideally only 1-2 sentences. Why? Because it's an email! Otherwise, a live discussion or brainstorming on an ambiguous topic for 15 minutes on the phone can be worth 5-10 painful email back-and-forths. Only email when it makes sense to email... sometimes you can email to say that you're setting up X time for this reason.

4b) Paragraph 1: Say hello, say why you're talking to them specifically, state your general topic matter. Paragraph 2: Make the ask/request clearly with a timeline. In bullets (3-5 tops) add in any relevant context, reference or link to any relevant documents. Paragraph 3: Offer that you're happy to discuss in a meeting, answer any additional questions, apologize for the short turn around time. Paragraph 4: Say thanks and sign off!

5) Exceptions to short emails are: Newsletters, Status Updates, Organizing a "discussion" or "decision" on a topic over email when it literally is impossible to get together to have a meeting, Collecting responses on a set of pre-defined set of questions requiring no discussion.
posted by ellerhodes at 8:22 PM on July 10, 2018

Read The Economist. That’s where I learn English. And this is how I would have asked your very question: first paragraph only.

I tend to ask questions like the one presented in this question. I know I can be a bit wordy and unclear at times, and I'd like to change that. How can I learn to write concisely with more clarity?
posted by Kwadeng at 2:17 AM on July 11, 2018

I recommend Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. I used to give a copy to anyone I hired when I ran a newsroom, and it was easy to tell who had read it and who hadn't.
posted by bryon at 3:17 AM on July 11, 2018

I took an entire class on this in college and loved it. The goal was to simplify writing for a lazy reader. (And nearly all readers are lazy.) Our bibles were Garner's Legal Writing in Plain English and Williams and Colomb's Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. The best way to internalize the lessons is to slog through the exercises. As to being friendly, I believe that being concise doesn't require being terse; the latter is all about tone. You can use fewer but friendlier words. For example, "Ok." can feel more abrupt than "Great!"

We focused on these principles from Garner:

§ 1 Have something to say – and think it through
§ 3 Order your material in a logical sequence. Use chronology when presenting facts. Keep related material together.
§ 5 Omit needless words
§ 7 Keep the subject, verb, and the object together – toward the beginning of the sentence
§ 8 Prefer the active voice over the passive
§ 9 Use parallel phrasing for parallel ideas
§ 10 Avoid multiple negatives
§ 11 End sentences emphatically
§ 12 Learn to detest simplifiable jargon
§ 13 Use strong, precise verbs. Minimize is, are, was, and were.
§ 14 Turn –ion words into verbs whenever you can.
§ 15 Simplify wordy phrases. Watch out for of.
§ 16 Avoid doublets and triplets.
§ 17 Refer to people and companies by name.
§ 20 Make everything you write speakable.
§ 22 Use the “deep issue” to spill the beans on the first page.
§ 23 Summarize. Don’t overparticularize.
§ 25 Bridge between paragraphs
§ 27 Provide signposts along the way.
§ 29 Weave quotations deftly into your narrative.
§ 30 Be forthright in dealing with counterarguments.
§ 43 Highlight ideas with attention-getters such as bullets

And these from Williams and Colomb:

Principle 2: Use subjects to name the characters in your story.
Principle 3: Use verbs to name their important actions.
Principle 4: Open your sentences with familiar units of information.
Principle 6: Push new, complex units of information to the end of the sentence.
Principle 8: Be concise:
- Cut meaningless and repeated words and obvious implications.
- Put the meaning of phrases into one or two words.
- Prefer affirmative sentences to negative ones.
posted by hotchocolate at 2:36 PM on July 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

Garner, linked above, is the legal writing guru, and for good reason.

I took my biggest steps towards becoming a concise, clear writer when I was ghostwriting material for someone who was a much better writer than I was, and then taking edits from them. It's a humbling experience, but if you can manufacture that sort of opportunity, do it.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:51 PM on July 11, 2018

1. Pretend every sentence is a Tweet. Only say what needs to be said in order to propagate the idea. Stop.

2. Avoid adjectives.

3. Avoid repetition. Repetition should not be tolerated. There is no room for redundancy (i.e., repetition).

4. If you think a communiqué seems blunt, add the word “please.”

5. Do not reiterate. Do not sum up.

6. If your sentence starts with “obviously” it is obvious the sentence is a waste.

7. Choose numbered lists over dense paragraphs to explicate information-dense topics.

8. No parentheses, no asides.

9. Please.
posted by Construction Concern at 9:21 AM on July 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

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