Sometimes you simply have a lot to say. But you know that people often don’t read long documents, and you are looking for ways to shorten yours. After you cut a few extra words and one or two unnecessary sentences, what can you do to make a long document or message seem shorter?
You can use these six tricks to create the illusion of shorter writing.
1. Break big chunks of text into smaller ones. A 500-word document with eight paragraphs will seem shorter than the same 500 words in four paragraphs. Why? Long paragraphs make a document seem longer because they make readers work harder.
Let’s say you are working on a paragraph about the differences between two approaches. Rather than describing both approaches and your conclusion in a 200-word paragraph, write one paragraph about Approach A, one about Approach B, and one with your conclusion. The short chunks will feel accessible to readers, and your clear organization of the information will come across visually. Your readers will not complain about reading a wall of text.
2. Break long sentences into short ones. Short sentences are easy to read, so they make reading faster. Compare these two examples, which are each 57 words:
Joanne did mention that you were going to compile the survey results for us, and while we are grateful that you will be involved in the project, we do not want to have you move forward without the training we have all completed, which will help you handle the data in a manner consistent with our approach.
Joanne did mention that you were going to compile the survey results for us, and we are grateful that you will be involved in the project. However, we do not want to have you move forward without the training we have all completed. It will help you handle the data in a manner consistent with our approach.
The first one-sentence example is written at a grade level of approximately 22 (post-graduate level). The second three-sentence example, which has only two words that differ from the first, is written at the 8th-grade level. Giving your reader the ability to read content quickly and easily will make your document seem shorter.
3. Take some content offstage. Whenever possible, push details out of your main message by including attachments or links that provide additional information. For example, add an appendix describing how interviews were conducted rather than giving that description in your report. Attach a procedure rather than pasting it into an announcement. Link to frequently asked questions instead of answering each question in your message.
Rather than making this a very long blog post, I offer you these two links to posts with more information on writing concisely:
On cutting extra words: “Write Concisely? Just Do It!”
On “that”: “When Not to Cut ‘That’ From Your Sentences”
4. Label information rather than writing unlabeled paragraphs. Readers read faster when they know what they are reading. When you label paragraphs with clear headings, readers move through them faster, and your message feels shorter.
Heading Placement. Headings can be directly above the content they are labeling, or they can be on the same line, as this paragraph illustrates.
5. Group your long lists into logical chunks. Even though bullet points appear crisp and concise, a list of 20 bullet points looks long and imposing. Instead of listing 20 bullet points or steps, group them. For example, if you had a list of 20 benefits, you might divide them into four groups and label them this way: Payment Benefits, Scheduling Benefits, Increased Quality, and Greater Flexibility.
6. Revise your content so it focuses on “you,” the reader. When content focuses on readers’ needs, readers are more engaged and less critical about document length. The opening sentence of this post, “Sometimes you simply have a lot to say,” is more engaging than “Sometimes documents need to include a lot of information.”
Beyond using you, which may not always work in a document, imagine your audience reading your message. If they will be scanning impatiently for a conclusion, offer your conclusion near the beginning. If they need the strategy more than the details, focus on strategy and include details in an attachment.
None of the tips above require that you shorten your message or cut important content. But each of them will make your message seem shorter. Tweaking a line from American poet Robert Frost, I’ll say “And that can make all the difference.”
What do you do to make your writing seem shorter to busy readers?
Take my Business Writing Tune-Up course to learn more tricks of the writing trade.