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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? 

Syntax Training 

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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.

8 comments on “How Thinking Small Can Improve Your Writing”

  • Today, more than ever, we are urged to limit the amount of words used to interact with our audience. For example, when I write a Facebook post with a short sentence and an image, the reach and engagement rate of the post, is always greater than if I write a long paragraph articulating the message. Short, clear and compelling is the way to go!

  • I tend to find that my public health students write too short sentences when making an argument. For example: “Many Zambian women live far from health centers. This makes it difficult to access care. We need to improve access to care. Transportation is a good way to do this.” I think a better way to express this idea would be to say. “Many Zambian women live far from health centers, making it difficult to access care. Subsidies for transport could help overcome these difficulties.” So while I agree that we don’t want to put too much into one sentence, I think it helps to like related ideas (the effect with cause, for example).

  • Carlos, thanks for your comment. Facebook is an ideal medium for brevity.

    TarynVian, you make an excellent point about sentence flow. Your original student example uses 30 words broken into four choppy sentences. Your revision uses just 22 words in two elegant sentences that guide the reader.

    Your point gives me the opportunity to clarify my advice. I will edit my post slightly so it does not suggest that related ideas should not be linked.


  • I agree! It takes much more time to write a succinct message than to blab on for several paragraphs, but I appreciate a well-written e-mail.

  • Excellent article! Very informative. We could apply this in day-to-day communications as well. “Don’t overload your end user with too much information”.

  • I am happy to have found your articles, landed on a page with sound advice and great business writing tips. I am just getting into my major corparate communications, and I plan on using your techniques for my personal research. I look forward to understanding and learning how to become a top business communicator. I am taking business communications this semester, and will incorporate this skills into my journey. I have a long way to go. Thanks for your quizzes and experience.

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