Business Writing

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Syntax Training | Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

December 01, 2016

How Thinking Small Can Improve Your Writing

On the job, we strive to think big. We try to see the big picture and the long view. But thinking big can weaken our writing. This post explains how to avoid that problem.

Yes, big ideas are important. Organizations thrive because of their vision and innovations. But readers need information delivered in small chunks. Consider these ways to succeed with readers by thinking small in your writing.

1. Think about how much information your audience needs--and needs NOW. Then give readers only as much as they need. Otherwise, your message will be too long and cumbersome.

For example, if you are telling employees that parking lot repaving will take place in February, communicate that a shuttle bus plan will be in place. Do not tell them the details of the bus schedules until one or two weeks before repaving.

If you are telling executives the benefits of purchasing new software, they do not need to know how the software works or even how it is different from the old software. The executives probably want to know only how it is better in helping the company achieve its goals.

If you are replying to a customer who has asked about a particular feature of a product, do not include information about other features or other products. A smaller, focused answer shows that you are paying attention to the customer's specific needs and request.

On the other hand, recognize when your reader may benefit from more information. For example, if an employee asks about the topic of next month's training program, you can answer the specific question--and you can attach the list of upcoming programs.

Remember: You may have a huge amount of information, but that does not mean your readers need or want it.


2. Limit your communications to just one topic each. Don't cram everything into one message. Communications that include many topics make readers work harder. As a result, they may ignore half of what you write.

For example, if you are announcing the open house for the new corporate conference center, think small. Give just the date, time, place, and exciting purpose of the open house. Do not ask people in the same message to sign up for conference center audio-visual training, vote on conference center artwork, and follow the conference room scheduling procedures. 

If your budget report also includes a request, your reader may skip or just skim your request and not recognize its urgency and importance. Make the request a separate document.

If your procedure includes statements of policy, readers may not be able to follow the procedure. Write two documents instead.

In email, each message generally should address just one topic. Readers can handle or reply to one topic easily. Several topics are likely to slow them down.


3. In your sentences, think small. Limit them to just one idea each. It can be tempting to pack sentences with ideas. But readers have to work harder to understand long sentences. They have to figure out how the sentence parts relate.

The paragraph above was easy to read. This version would require more work from readers:

In your sentences, think small, limiting them to just one idea each, because although it can be tempting to pack sentences with ideas, readers have to work harder to understand long sentences, and they have to figure out how the sentence parts relate.

After you write a draft of a message or document, review it for sentence length. Look for opportunities to communicate your ideas in smaller, solid sentences.


4. Limit your paragraphs to just one idea or topic each. Like sentences, paragraphs with more than one idea or topic are longer and more challenging to follow. The longer paragraphs are, the more likely readers are to skip over them, despite their importance.

Each paragraph should answer just one question for the reader. For example, if you were emailing the announcement of a new program, your paragraphs might answer the questions below. Even a relatively short email can be made up of many crisp, clear paragraphs.

  • What is this message about?
  • What is the new program?
  • What is its purpose?
  • When does it start?
  • Why is the new program better than the old one?
  • Do I have to do anything? If so, what?
  • Where can I get more information?

5. Reduce or eliminate background information. If you are an analytical thinker, you may believe that your readers need all the background details to understand your big ideas. However, background information can cloud your message rather than clarify it. If you feel you must include background so that your reader has the full picture, attach it or include it last, using the heading "Background."

A company whose name is a household word has a rule that big ideas be presented in a document called a "one-pager." Presentations of huge strategic initiatives must fit in a "six-pager." Writers can attach supportive materials to their one- or six-pagers, but they have to communicate the essentials within the main document. As a company, they are committed to thinking big but writing in small, accessible packages. 

When it comes to writing, thinking small is an advantage, not a shortcoming. 

Do you agree? 

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