Simple ways to streamline your writing

Almost everyone’s writing is “bulky,” to one degree or another — it uses more words (or syllables) than necessary. It takes a long time to say something short. Bulky writing is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s the default setting for human beings. Slimmed-down writing is a skill that takes years to develop.

But it’s worth developing, because efficient writing is generally clearer and simpler. Your readers will benefit, even if they don’t notice, even if you’re just sending emails. In the end, you benefit too.

And there are a few simple things you can do right now to get you started. Below are some common examples of bulky writing, each with a suggested fix.

Of course, you can’t apply these “fixes” blindly — sometimes longer is better, and sometimes streamlining isn’t helpful, so use your common sense. But in my experience, these fixes are useful more often than not.

Before: We created this plan in order to help our employees.
After: We created this plan to help our employees.

Occasionally “in order to” is necessary, but only occasionally.

Before: Please note that the restrooms are closed.
After: The restrooms are closed.

In general, if you want to “note” something, or “it is important to note” something, or “it is interesting to note” something, you can save everybody a little time and just say the thing.

Before: Children and adults should use the red and blue doors, respectively.
After: Children should use the red doors, and adults should use the blue doors.

Okay, this one isn’t about slimming down, because the “after” version is slightly longer — but it’s also a bit clearer. (As I said, sometimes longer is better.) Whenever you start to type “respectively,” ask yourself if it might be simpler for your reader if you just write it out.

Before: We should submit a request for more funding.
After: We should request more funding.

If you’re using a whole phrase to describe an action, it can often be reduced to a simple verb. This problem is rampant in corporate, government, and academic writing. Other examples: “took action” can be “acted,” “carries out innovation” can be “innovates,” and “attended a meeting with” can be “met with.” Again, the longer version is sometimes appropriate, but you should use it when it’s necessary, not merely by default.

The rest of the examples are pretty self-explanatory, I think.

Before: We cannot begin at this point in time.
After: We cannot begin now. [OR: We cannot begin right now.]

Before: As a consequence of the audit finding, he commissioned a report.
After: Because of the audit finding, he commissioned a report.

Before: Our department has increased in size.
After: Our department has grown.

Before: We should utilize this discovery. [OR: We should make use of this discovery.]
After: We should use this discovery.

Before: I will attempt to prove this statement.
After: I will try to prove this statement.

Before: With this feature, the client is able to change the color.
After: With this feature, the client can change the color.

Before: Now we will decide whether or not we should proceed.
After: Now we will decide whether we should proceed.

Before: There are many resources available to us.
After: Many resources are available to us. [OR: We have many resources.]

Anyone want to initiate a discussion about discuss any of these?

2 responses to “Simple ways to streamline your writing

  1. This is a sticking point for me, I really really really really really really disagree. And If my writing was too bulky maybe it was because you didn’t get how much I disagreed. It was a loooooooooooooooooooottttttt.


    I think you might have picked up some of Data from TNG’s mannerisms here. Efficiency or clarity is not always the most important thing in writing. Just as they aren’t the most important things in life. To me this post comes across like you think sitting down and watching the sunrise with a good cup of coffee is not necessary or important. Yes, you can be more efficient or productive with your morning, maybe. But sometimes the feeling or length of path is important too. These are my thoughts, disagree at your peril. Of course I’m a terrible writer, so my opinion is to be taken with a huge grain of salt.

    • I don’t think we actually disagree. I never said, and certainly don’t believe, that efficiency or clarity is always the most important thing in writing.

      My examples in this post are mostly about getting across business/academic/governmental concepts, where clarity is generally your main goal. But it’s the same principle regardless: Use the fewest words possible to achieve whatever effect you want, whether that’s clarity, or something else.

      A lot of writing is less about conveying an idea, and more about getting across a feeling, or painting a picture. If you want to convey a relaxed, pleasant feeling, then naturally “the fewest words possible” will likely be a lot more words.

      Another example: Your “I really really really really really really disagree” isn’t necessarily “bulky,” because it conveys quite a different feeling than just one “really.” Or, to put it yet another way: If cutting out words is somehow harmful to your writing, then you’re cutting too much, which is the flip side of bulky writing.

      We’ve talked about this before, and each time I come away thinking that there’s no real disagreement between our positions, just a different way of phrasing it.

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