A plea for brevity

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My editors at BtoB grant me 450 words for this column, and I love them for it. The length limit requires me to focus, get to the point and finish quickly. It demands the discipline to make each word count. Length limits are a fixture in the space-constrained print media world, but the concept has been vaporized by the Web, whose bottomless capacity has brought out the worst in many of us. Not only has this created a lot of bad writing, it has distracted us from serving the needs of the reader. Our education system instills bad habits at an early age. I was taught that a 10-page paper was more important than a two-page one, so students of my generation learned to pad their writing with words that did nothing more than add bulk. We carried this bias into our business careers, where length is still equated with gravity. When asked to edit a colleague's submission for a newsletter or blog, I can often cut half the words without altering the meaning. In fact, a tight edit usually makes the message stronger. As Blaise Pascal famously said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” Overwriting actually inhibits our ability to communicate. Business bloggers often gripe about the difficulty of coming up with topics that can support the extended essays they believe their audience expects. My advice: Write shorter. Brief entries are more likely to be read. Your audience already has shelves overflowing with unopened books and hundreds of bookmarked articles they plan to get to when they have the time. Why make them work harder to figure out what you're trying to say? Successful business bloggers will tell you that brevity is their bread and butter. The stray observation encoded in a single paragraph keeps their content stream flowing and makes it easier to organize their thoughts. Search engines also value frequency over length. Google itself wishes we would shut up. In his outstanding 1988 book, “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing,” former Wall Street Journal reporter Bill Blundell speaks of the painstaking work his editors put into taking words out of stories. Space freed by attentive editing can be devoted to other topics, which ultimately makes the reader more efficient. Blundell's lessons are just as valid today. Space may no longer be an issue, but respect for the reader should never go out of style. If you oversee any aspect of your company's communications, consider imposing length limits on yourself and those you edit. Ask if you would commit the necessary time to understand what you're trying to say. If you wouldn't, get out the scissors. Or the delete key. Paul Gillin's latest book is “Attack of the Customers: Why Critics Assault Brands Online and How to Avoid Becoming a Victim.”
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