Why (And How) To Write Less

By Neuroskeptic | December 23, 2012 2:10 pm

I said a couple of times during my recent trip to UPenn that “Most writing is too long”. People seemed to nod appreciatively at this, so here’s some more on that topic…

Most writing is too long and the most common reason is that it’s not written for the reader’s benefit. Readers want the important stuff, as clearly as possible, in the shortest possible space. If you remember that and let it guide your writing, you won’t go far wrong. The reader’s favourite bits are the ones you don’t write.

The problem is that it’s tempting to write for your own benefit, not the reader’s, and this almost always ends up making things too long. This can take many forms:

Some write to help themselves understand the material, such that the end product is a record of their learning process. Others will insert details that the reader doesn’t need, because it’s a topic the writer’s fond of. Other fear making tough decisions about what to include, so they say everything and hope some of it’s good: “Write it all and let God sort them out.”

This is common because formal education teaches you to write poorly. Specifically, it encourages people to overwrite. Teachers and professors give assignments and they set a minimum word count. This sends the message that where writing’s concerned, more is better.

Teachers have their reasons. They want a brain-dump to show that the student’s done the homework, pretty much the opposite of good writing. That’s fair enough for school, but if you internalize that philosophy, you will end up writing to show off rather than for the reader’s benefit.

Once you put the reader’s interests first, you’ll naturally start to find your own ways to achieve that. Everyone’s style is different, but here’s a few I’ve learned:

  • If it starts “On that note…”, “Also…”, or “Furthermore…”, you should probably cut it.
  • Join Twitter – writing to a 140 character limit is a great form of discipline. Then imagine that every paragraph you write must become a tweet. You may find you can compress that paragraph into one sentence.
  • Just as Twitter is good, other artificial constraints are good. Set yourself a word limit; if you’re blogging, make it 500 words.
  • Unless the article’s about you, sentences that include the word “I” or “we” can usually be cut.
  • Think of your piece as a nuclear missile: it has a payload, the message you want the reader to grasp, and a rocket motor, the introduction and other stuff you need to ensure it reaches the reader. Every missile needs a motor, but designers try to make the payload as big as possible, given the size of the motor. Identify what your payload is, and what your motor is. Then think, is my motor too big? (It probably is.) In this paragraph the missile analogy is the motor.
  • As a rule of thumb, by writing it better, you can cut it down by half.
CATEGORIZED UNDER: blogging, books, media, you
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06834641501438709866 Jan Moren

    I agree overall, but not with one of your points: “Unless the article's about you, sentences that include the word “I” or “we” can usually be cut.”

    How about “We put the rats on a 30-day diet of radioactive spiders.” Or “We observed no significant change when the kryptonite was present.”

    We should encourage people – students especially – to take responsibility for what they're doing, and not force even more mealy-mouthed indirect agent sentences of the “mistakes were made” variety.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01902333598770264774 DrB

    As a college prof who does not believe in giving word counts for assignments thank you :) I work hard to teach my students to distill the important facts to communicate and leave the fluffy details out. Without fail at least once a week I get asked “How long does it have to be?” to which I always answer “As long as it needs to be”. It is hard getting students to focus on content not length.

  • http://petrossa.me/ petrossa.me

    Well, as pieces go that was for sure short enough. Alas one now has to deal with generations with the attention span of gnat. Yay for the internet generation

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12835021279108929371 Callum Hackett

    These are all good points, though I agree with Jan Moren about personal pronouns, and I would add my own concern that, sometimes, attempts to cut down on length can lead to contextual information being stripped that would actually aid the reader's understanding of the essential points. Absolutely, don't write what's unnecessary, but don't assume too much of the reader.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13783922534271559030 Jayarava

    This is partly an argument for dumbing down writing which is just non-sense. Write well, sure, but must we all write for people who can't follow complex arguments and have short attention spans.

    My experience of twitter is that almost nothing of value is written their – the best posts are links to articles which are 1000 times longer.

    I certainly agree that a lot of academic writing is boring and badly written, but the problem – as your own solutions suggest – is not to write less, but to write better.

    My favourite article of all time is fully 90 pages long. It is scintillating from beginning to end.

    Perhaps the problem is simply that academics have to churn writing out for their very survival – especially in the US. There's no passion, and any that there is tends to be ruthlessly rooted out by readers and editors – while they leave in all the appalling circumlocutions one is expected to use to avoid the first person. The conventions of academia general conspire to condemn most people to sub-mediocre writing.

    I always wish that the best writing would go on forever!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Jan Moren: Yeah, if you're writing about something you did, then it's fine to say that. However when the discussion's on something else entirely and you start to talk about yourself, I think 90% of the time it's a bad move. A personal angle can work, but they're overused.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    “This is partly an argument for dumbing down writing which is just non-sense.”

    Not at all: you can express many complex arguments briefly. Certainly, much more briefly than a lot of people do. Complex arguments are complex because the ideas are hard to grasp and the points subtle, not because they're just big.

    And in fact I'd say that the best way to make complex ideas comprehensible is to express them briefly, to reduce the argument to its core.

    Dumbing down's a big problem but you can dumb down at great length & many do.

    As for short attention spans, I think this is overblown. I don't have a short attention span but when I used to read hardcore philosophy books, I'd try and read them cover to cover, and I usually ended up with a superficial understanding.

    If they'd been broken down into a series of blog posts I'd have done a lot better. It takes time to soak up the subtleties of an argument. Breaking it up into chunks and spacing them out is better than putting them all into one thick book, in my view.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16203083806436919715 Bernard Carroll

    In olden days we saw classics in places like Journal of Physiology and Journal of Neurophysiology run to 30+ pages, often describing a linked series of sequential experiments. Nowadays, that is impossible – we have multiple LPUs instead (Least Publishable Units). Even within LPUs, the style you rightly critique prevails.

    Recently I co-authored a submission to a fine journal with an Introduction paragraph that ran to 64 words, stating the research question concisely. A reviewer complained that “…in Introduction there is no real introduction to this field of research. It is too short with only 5 lines.”

  • http://davenussbaum.com Dave Nussbaum

    I'm largely with you but I think your post is too short. I don't only mean this humorously. I think your argument would be more convincing if it were more fleshed out. As it is I think there's a good point in there but I doubt you would convince a skeptic.

    For example, I agree that writing for yourself can be self-indulgent, but it needn't be. Writing for your audience is also a good way to lose your way amid a misplaced desire to please everyone, or too many people, or the wrong people. Certainly it's good to get to the point but there's a reason we don't write articles entirely in bullet points.

    William Zinsser, in his On Writing Well (which I highly recommend) is a big fan of brevity, and more particularly eliminating clutter. But he counsels, wisely, to write for yourself, at least when it comes to style — let your reader take it or leave it. Where he insists that you keep the reader in mind is in crafting your writing. Don't fill your writing with clutter or meandering thoughts because you'll lose your audience.

    What this example illuminates to me, if you're with me this far, is that if you make your writing too short, you're bound to omit some important

    That was a joke.

    In my own blogging I'm constantly struggling with finding a way to tell the whole story to my satisfaction without burying the reader with considerations and qualifications and other hands. So I appreciate the sentiment that shorter is better and cut it if you can, and if you're wondering whether or not you can cut it, usually you can. But to paraphrase Einstein good writing is as short as possible, but not shorter.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah but you started paragraphs in your prior Mental Illness post with “But” and “Now” and “So far” so you are not practicing what you preach!

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, but in my case, my every thought is a golden gift to the people. My every tic unleashes understanding. That's why I write as much as I want.

  • http://notsobigsociety.wordpress.com Zarathustra

    Personally, I think I learned a lot about how to be concise after agreeing to write a few blog posts for Liberal Conspiracy.

    I too was inculcated into the university-driven idea of having a minimum word length, so you must write more. Hence I was surprised when the LC editor asked me to keep things to a short, snappy article, making clear mention in the first paragraph of what point you're making.

    I don't think it dumbed me down. I think it made me a more disciplined writer. It got me to think about how to express myself as clearly and concisely as possible, and to think about what the “take home” message is from the piece of writing, that I'd want to give prominence to.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Dave Nussbaum: I agree with that mostly – writing certainly can be too short. But in my experience it rarely is – overwriting is a lot more common.

    It's also possible to write something of 'the right length' without saying very much – achieving brevity at the cost of content – which is why I used the nuclear missile analogy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12424928275256221548 Nadeem

    Great advice.

    I'm reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and I can recommend it to anyone trying to improve their writing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13854502563967847901 Kyy

    Honoré de Balzac used to write letters of more than 50 pages. He always included an excuse:
    Dear friend, I apologize for not having written shorter due to lack of time..

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05770787926992655132 Neill

    The issue is not long or short writing. Each may be stylistically appropriate. The problem is that most people do not understand the differences between written and spoken language. Structures that might make sense in conversation are gobbledygook to readers,

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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