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Five Quick Ways to Trim—
and Improve—Business Writing
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Five Quick Ways to Trim—and Improve—Business Writing
by John Clayton
At a time when we’re all working “smarter and faster”
2. STICK TO SPECIFICS
and the Internet has dramatically changed how people
Specifi cs are the meat of your message, and generalizations
read and absorb information, business writing needs to
the carbs. Put your writing on a high-protein, low-carb
be relentlessly concise. And yet it has to deliver complex
diet. A good anecdote or statistic will stay with your
audience longer than a generalization and better convey
If you’re like most people, you probably fi nd that once
you have all the crucial information down, your document
debates, devote precious time to anecdotes. Th
is at least twice as long as it should be. Whether you’re
that telling a story (about a wounded soldier, a laid-off
writing an e-mail message, a project description limited
worker, or a creative entrepreneur) is oft en the best way
to 200 words, or an executive summary of a complex
to make a persuasive argument (for better weapons, more
report, your challenge is the same: cut length without
unemployment insurance, lower business taxes).
losing meaning. Here are some quick, eff ective ways to do this.
3. FORMAT FOR QUICK UNDERSTANDING
And there’s a bonus: As you trim excess words, format
Graphical elements—headings, bullets, and tables—can
for readability, and replace generalizations with specifi cs,
help you convey your message in fewer words.
you’ll also improve your writing—a lot.
Headings and bullets.
Headings are useful because
they emphasize your main points, eliminate the need
1. EXAMINE THE STRUCTURE
for topic sentences, create white space, and help readers
Which parts form the foundation or support the roof,
skim. But the way they’re usually formatted—on a line by
and which can be cut away without collapsing the whole
themselves, sometimes with a blank line following—takes
up a lot of space. If you want to save space without losing
e old advice about previewing and then reviewing
the headings, convert them to run-in headings like the
your message may still be fi ne for lengthy reports, but
one at the beginning of this paragraph.
for most business writing, this amounts to building three
Like headings, bullets help readers skim. Th
walls where one will do. Don’t announce what you will
encourage you, the writer, to “chunk” information into
small, digestible bites, as in this list.
For example, you may have followed your English
teacher’s advice to include in your introductory paragraph
To compare and contrast various options, use
one sentence touching on each point you will make. Here’s
a table rather than running text. You won’t have to keep
an easy cut: Delete the introductory paragraph and jump
repeating the names of diff erent companies, for instance,
or the criteria on which you’re judging them. More
Additionally, the foundation you built may be more
important, a table presents complex comparisons in a
substantial than you need. For example, maybe you’ve
succinct way. Your readers can compare A and B, B and
included detailed background information. Does D, or A, B, and C as they please; you don’t have to explain your audience need this in order to understand and be
all the similarities and diff erences between them. An
persuaded by your argument? If not, summarize it briefl y
added bonus: Your audience’s expectations change when
and get right to the heart of your message.
Consider cutting anything that illuminates something
and they’re willing to read text in a smaller font.
other than your main point. And if a section exists mostly
Maps and diagrams.
out directions: Maple St. is the third stoplight. Th
Copyright 2008 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
Trim Your Writing continued
Is Following the Rules
be split. Consider this sentence: Our CEO expects to more than
Tripping Up Your Message?
Try rewriting it so as to eliminate the split inﬁ nitive; there’s no
way to do it without losing the precise meaning of the origi-
Will the sky fall if you end a sentence with a preposition? Will
time stop if you split an inﬁ nitive? No, of course not.
Here is another example: We are trying to immediately solve
In fact, your most sophisticated readers won’t even bat an eye.
any customer-service problems that arise.
And it’s not because they’ve become so accustomed to the
changes the meaning—imme-
shortcuts and improvisations of e-mail that they don’t notice
now modiﬁ es are trying.
when someone breaks a rule. They still notice, all right. It’s
makes the sentence stilted. And moving immediately
just that they know that some “rules” aren’t rules at all—and
end of the sentence is no good, because there it appears to
These nonrules are known as “superstitions” among the gram-
With split inﬁ nitives, the best bet is to steer a middle course.
mar and usage set, and they may be preventing your writing
If you can avoid a split inﬁ nitive without altering meaning,
from being as strong, direct, and effective as it can be. Here
introducing ambiguity, or interrupting ﬂ ow, you should do so,
1. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
This is one of the
3. Never begin a sentence with and or but.
Go ahead and do
most enduring of superstitions, despite centuries of commen-
it—you’ll be in good company. The Oxford English Dictionary
cites sentences beginning with and
that date back to the 10th
The origins of this bugaboo lie in etymology and the origins of
English grammar, explains Bryan A. Garner, widely respected
A scholar in the 1960s, says Garner, studied the work of top-
language authority and author of the excellent A Dictionary of
ﬂ ight writers—H.L. Mencken and Lionel Trilling among them—
Modern American Usage
(Oxford University Press, 1998).
and found that nearly 9% of their sentences began with and
In Latin, preposition means “stand before,” and in Latin, a
. Garner’s own research has turned up similar results.
preposition does indeed stand before other words; it’s the one
Some writers substitute however
at the beginning of
part of speech that can’t end a Latin sentence.
a sentence, believing that by so doing they’re hewing to the
But English is not Latin. Although English grammar is modeled
grammatical line. What they’re doing is stalling the progress
on Latin grammar, the languages are very different, and some
of their prose. But
at the beginning of a sentence keeps things
zipping nicely along, while however
—followed by its obligatory
Criticized for ending a sentence with a preposition, Winston
comma—is a verbal speed bump, jarring the reader and slow-
Churchill is said to have quipped, “That is the type of arrant
pedantry up with which I shall not put.” As this absurdly
4. Never write a one-sentence paragraph.
stilted sentence demonstrates, the syntactical contortions
length, like varied sentence length, is a hallmark of a skilled
necessary to keep a sentence ending preposition-free result
stylist. Writing a one-sentence paragraph is an excellent way to
in awkward, turgid prose—not the best vehicle for your
grab the reader’s attention or emphasize an important point.
2. Never split an inﬁ nitive.
The fact is, some inﬁ nitives beg to
Denny’s on one corner and a used-car lot on the other corner,
Instead, put your main point in boldface to convey its
but if you get to the Clarksdale city limits, you’ve gone too
A map conveys the same information concisely and
accessibly. Flowcharts, graphs, and diagrams likewise 4. DOWNSHIFT YOUR TONE
convey complex relationships in easy-to-understand Writing to a business audience can cause even the best
writers to adopt a formal, bureaucratic tone. When you write this way, you use bigger words, more complex
To make sure your audience remembers
constructions, and longer sentences. If you shift to an
what you have to say, you may be tempted to use phrases
informal tone, you’ll naturally write more concisely.
is is the most important point
or If you take one
Here’s a place to start. Use contractions. Changing will
message away from this document, let it be the following.
won’t save much space,
HARVARD MANAGEMENT UPDATE
| SEPTEMBER 2008
Trim Your Writing continued
but using contractions will help you avoid the wordy,
Do a search for the word obvious
, and see if
formal style of bureaucrats, explains Edward P. Bailey in
the sentences in which it appears can be trimmed down.
Plain English at Work: A Guide to Writing and Speaking
Aft er all, if something is obvious, why waste precious
Convert “of ” phrases to possessives.
5. CUT AND COMBINE
change the success of the company
to the company’s
Go over your document sentence by sentence, looking for
ways to cut words by combining two sentences into one. Consider this passage: Th
is presentation examines the benefi ts
Replace bloated phrases with simpler words. An
of outsourcing. It is my recommendation that we reduce
adequate number of
can be replaced with enough
overhead by outsourcing noncore processes such as customer
notwithstanding the fact that
is a windy way of saying
service, fulfi llment, and other support functions.
, and during such time as
simply means while
e fi rst sentence is dead weight. Delete it and write:
We could signifi cantly reduce overhead by outsourcing such noncore support functions as customer service and
By applying these tips, you can create documents that are
not only shorter but more readable and persuasive.
You’ve now announced your topic and stated your
position with wording that’s almost 50% leaner than the original.
John Clayton is a Montana-based writer and author of a
The Cowboy Girl: The Life of Caroline Lockhart (University of Nebraska Press, 2007). He can be
Drop lengthy titles.
Rather than Bob Smith, Vice
reached at MUOpinion@harvardbusiness.org.
President for Corporate Communications and Government Relations, says
…, you could write spokesperson Bob Smith
Reprint # U0809D:
To order a reprint of this article, call 800-668-6705
Look out for the obvious.
Rather than writing, Obviously, this means we will need to raise prices, which
could reduce sales,
write, Our need to raise prices could
HARVARD MANAGEMENT UPDATE
| SEPTEMBER 2008
DESCARTES COMMU 2 NICA 0 TION 0 PRIZE 6 Malaria, the Secret Storm A troubled region, sub-Saharan Africa, has fuelled the interest of many people over the years. One person in particular comes to mind, however. Jean Vercoutère of France, film director, has been investigating the silent killer: paludism, also known as malaria. With more than 15 years of experience und
Padres que son aliados y aumento de la autoestima Cuando los padres y los profesionales de la Tiempo de dedicación en grupo Forme una alianza con los padres enseñanza y del cuidado de niños establecen una • Planifique y participe en interacciones en • Utilice como referencia el modelo de atención relación de respeto mutuo, su alianza sienta una base pequeños grupos, as