So, for today, we will assume that you understand the subtle, but critical difference between being “short,” and being “concise.” Today, we will assume you have prepared the reader for your message, and we’ll get straight to the point. What are some of the tricks and techniques you can use to tighten up your writing quickly?
Here are three to start with:
1. Use alternate formats wherever appropriate, even beginning with the first paragraph. The old standbys, bullet points and numbered paragraphs, are well known, well loved, and effective. But you know that.
Take a look at some of the lesser-known alternate formats, like the problem-solution, log, or question and answer formats, among others.
While the benefits of using an alternate format to shorten up your writing are many, and obvious when you see them, perhaps one of the foremost is that with the use of a good alternate format, you can also do away with the tricky business of writing a good transition. A good alternate format will make the transition obvious, reducing the number of words required, and enhancing comprehension.
And in an email, the only additional issue you need to watch out for is that your piece will hold its format. If you are writing outside of your organization, or if your organization does not share an intranet where all screens are set the same, it is most likely your formatting will not hold. Use the piece as an attachment, with the body of your email being a cover letter. Saving it as a pdf file is generally safer.
2. Use a cover letter. As you recall, an email should be no longer than a screen. A screen is long enough, with a screen-and-a-half maximum.
That first paragraph, the cover letter in this case, must never be any longer than five lines. This is the extent of your reader’s 100% attention span, and if that first paragraph is to do its job, you need to use that knowledge.
Two purposes of a cover letter are (a) to let the reader know, at a glance, what the attachment is about, and what he or she needs to do with it; and (b) obviously, to get him or her to open and read it. And to act on it the way you intend.
3. Use the old question, “Should this information be passed along at all?” Here’s where you can save not only words, but maybe the entire communication. I’ve had workshop participants tell me this one consideration saves up to half of their business writing time.
So there you have it. Three tips to shorten your written communication. More next week.
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