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Birth of the Stretch Message

What drives you nuts or slows you down as a reader of business documents? When I ask this question in classes, on everyone’s list is the phrase “too long.” No one wants to read long, drawn out reports, proposals, or email, but everyone seems to receive them.

How did we get to be a planet of writers of stretch sentences, paragraphs, and documents? (I’m using stretch as in “stretch limousine,” one of those extra long, overstated vehicles that take up more than their share of parking spaces.)

I believe we got there because of the best efforts of well-intentioned teachers. Example: At this moment my daughter is rewriting an anecdote for her 7th grade language arts class. She is not revising–she’s rewriting using a pencil on paper. Why? When she composed and revised her anecdote on our home computer, it was too short–not the full page her teacher requires. So now she is stretching it out by handwriting it.

When she showed me her draft on the computer and asked for comments, I saw a lot that was good and funny. (It was about a first-grader’s odd delight at experiencing a mild earthquake.) But a couple of times I remarked, “I think you said that in the previous sentence.” She responded, “But it has to be a page long, so I don’t want to take that out.”

Fast forward 20 years: I hope people who work with my daughter as an adult won’t be saying, “Why did she take a whole page to say that? She could have said it much more concisely.”

I understand teachers’ goals. They are encouraging children to express themselves well, to go beyond one-dimensional subject-verb sentences with the same tired adjectives like cool and dumb. I just wish they could achieve that goal without setting minimum lengths. For example, in the anecdote assignment, the teacher directed the children to include feelings, thoughts, a description of the setting and time, dialogue, and fresh language. Those excellent instructions made much more sense than a minimum length.

From high school to college to graduate school, the minimum lengths get stretched out: 500 words or more . . . 20 pages or more . . . 50 pages or more. Then our children graduate, take jobs, and end up writing stretch messages.

Is that what happened to us?


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

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