Want To Become Briefer? Three Tips on Brevity

Almost every business communicator I coach cites brevity as the major way they’d like to improve their writing. In this weekly series, we offer helpful tips and guidance on helping your writing become crisp, crunchy, and digestible (even to those fielding 300+ emails a day).

Remove Hedging Phrases

Who’s read an email recently where the writer inserts several sentences— sometimes paragraphs— of fluff before getting to the bottom line. (Me!) The writer probably used multiple hedging phrases—indirect, vague, and cautious-sounding language before getting to their point. I’ll share a few examples below:

  • I think that…
  • If it were up to me…
  • In my opinion…
  • Sort of…
  • Kind of…
  • I wondered if we could…

Bottom line: For brevity, remove hedging phrases where possible. You’ll sound more strident and become crisper, too.

Use Modal Verbs/Phrases Lightly

Modal verbs (words such as can, would, could, should, shall, ought to, or will, etc.) usually come with another verb and show the possibility or necessity of an idea. (Merriam-Webster provided the earlier description.) Modal verbs and expressions tie closely to hedging phrases; in fact, many hedging phrases include modal verbs within. Consider the following examples:

  • It would be good if we could… vs. we could…or, let’s…
  • I think we should… vs. We should
  • This is possibly the best… vs. This is the best…
  • I feel we should let this person go… vs. Let this person go….

A few quick points on modal expressions before I share the next tip:

  • Modal phrases don’t insert grammatical errors; however, you do become wordy.
  • Modal expressions can sound limp. You’ll sound more muscular when you state whatever comes directly after the modal phrase first.
  •  Modal phrases provide us with wiggle room. For instance, an airline might cover any risk of flights not resuming if the message reads, “Flights will likely/hopefully resume when…”
  • Modal expressions can sound more polite and less direct in some cultures.

Remove Repetition and Redundancies

I endorse the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition of redundancies: Meaningless, repetitive ideas you can remove without losing essential information. Redundancies also clutter your writing and create a wooden, formal, and inaccessible sounding tone. Examples include:

  • I’d like to summarize briefly… vs. I’ll summarize…
  • In the event that… vs. If…
  • Each and every one of you will receive a bonus… vs. each of you will receive a bonus…
  • In spite of the fact that… vs. Although…
  • Biography of his life vs. biography…
  • A total of 45 employees vs. 45 employees…

Press releases often contain redundancies because leaders ask writers to remain cautious (and therefore wordy). However, readers stop reading when a message sounds insincere, vague and indirect. Consider this edit:

XYZ, Inc., a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company developing transformative therapies for challenging neurologic disorders, today is announcing the completion of a $70 million Series B financing to fund advancement of its expanding clinical-stage pipeline.

XYZ, Inc., a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company developing transformative therapies for challenging neurologic disorders, today is announcing the completion of (announced today) a $70 million Series B financing to fund advancement of its expanding clinical-stage pipeline.

Here’s one more:

According to a new XYZ study released today, a majority of Europeans think the situation of the economy is good. Support for the euro is at its highest since 2004 in the euro area and optimism for the future of the EU outweighs pessimism.

According to A new XYZ study released today, a majority of (finds most) Europeans think the situation of the economy is good. Support for the euro is at its highest since 2004 in the euro area and optimism for the future of the EU outweighs pessimism.

While trimming redundancies in two sentences only removes 10 or so words, apply this effort across your entire message and your reader will absolutely appreciate your crisp and clear message.

More blogs on brevity live here.


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