The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Most likely, we can agree that the truth concept is essential. The logistical issue for those of us who write emails, reports, instructions, and the plethora of business writing that we do every day is:

How much truth can we tell? What is “the whole truth”? In all likelihood, we know far more about the subject then we have time, space, or willing readers to read everything we know. So it’s not a matter of holding things back with our writing, but rather a matter of how much our readers can read and absorb, and how much is necessary and appropriate.

What is the “whole truth”? Are we ethically bound to share every single thing we know about an issue with today’s “skim and skip” reader, and run the risk of his or her not reading much, if any of what we have said? So the question becomes, “How much is enough, and how much is too much, or too little?” And how do I know?

Here are some guidelines:

  1. Consider your reader. Always a good starting point. Here are some things to think about:
  • How well educated your reader is in the matter under discussion will tell you how much, if any, backgrounding you will have to provide for him or for her.
  • How many of the details, such as who was, is, or will be involved; the timeline; the location; the “why”; or the ” how,” are all essential to your content. How much your reader already knows about these details will determine whether you may cover each of these points with a quick reference, or if not, the amount of detail required.
  • If you are writing about a contentious issue, it could be helpful to know which side your reader is on – whether he or she already has a bias, or a certain point of view. How influential is your reader, and with whom? This information will help you both with your content, and with your approach, as you determine how much should, or should not be added.
  • It may seem obvious, but also consider how much your reader is likely to read to determine how much to write. If you want the piece to be read, and you know your reader is a typical “skim and skip” reader, you will want to load the most important information – the “who-what-when-where-why-how” – into the first paragraph, so that in the likely event that is all he or she reads, or at least reads with full attention, you will have a reasonable chance of your reader “getting” at least most of what you want to say. As long as you use no more than five lines to do it.
  1. Consider your purpose for writing. Focus very tightly on the job this piece of writing needs to do. Should the way you have written this piece get the results you need?
  1. Now look at the type of piece you are writing. Are you writing a 27-page report when a short memo would be more effective? Email instructions when a quick training session with a “how to” handout could be more effective?

After considering these points, and the others that will come to your mind during the process, here are three more essential things to consider:

  1. Your reader’s need for the information
  1. Your reader’s use of the information
  1. Your purpose for writing

That’s it. The best, and easiest, way I know to determine “How much is enough, and how much is too much, or too little?” And how do I know?



Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email to learn more.

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