A while back, as I reviewed a client’s writing, I found myself a bit puzzled about what advice to give. The language was clean and technically correct, but it was difficult to read. I had to actively concentrate to get through it, and I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to take away.
It took me a fair chunk of noodling time to identify the problem: the writing was too concise.
Too concise? Is it even possible to be too concise?
In a word, yes.
Anyone who’s read this newsletter for a while knows that I tend to offer a goodly amount of advice on how to be concise. As an editor, I frequently cut 10-15% of writers’ words without losing material content. It’s much less common for me to find the reverse situation, but it does happen.
Indicators your writing might be too concise
If you ever hear these reactions from readers, it could indicate your writing is too concise:
- Readers feel lost or untethered, like they’re jumping into the ocean too quickly without scuba gear.
- Readers have to think really hard to understand the text (and I’m talking about subjects that most of us could comprehend, not nuclear physics).
- Readers have trouble connecting the dots between one idea and the next and figuring out how they relate.
- Readers say the writing feels stiff, or that there just isn’t enough there.
- When you explain to a reader what a passage means, they respond with something like “Oh! That’s not what it says. That information is missing.” (Or as I like to say, “The information is in your head but not on the page—and I’m not a mindreader.”)
Additionally, you (the writer) may feel like you have trouble generating enough content. “I don’t know what else to say…”
There are several craft issues that could lead to these types of comments, but the level of concision is a good place to start looking. Start with the following four approaches, all conveniently C words if you’re a fan of alliterative mnemonics. (And if you’re already incorporating all of these approaches, you may have a different issue.)
When a reader gets lost or keeps asking “what does this mean?”, you may need to provide more context to keep them grounded. They need to understand not only what you are explaining but why it is relevant. Think about:
Context before detail. Set the stage before you start the play. At the beginning of a chapter or a section or even a paragraph, what foundational information does the reader need before you jump into the details? Example: In this little section of this article, I first told you that readers need to know “why” before I started providing examples of where that “why” might need to be provided. (Is that meta enough for you?)
Context around data. When you provide a fact or piece of information, consider what context is needed for it to be meaningful. Example: If I tell you the US COVID-19 death rate is 2,394 per million people, is that good or bad? If I tell you the world average is 673, you know our rate is 3.5x higher than average. But is that a fair comparison if the virus hasn’t made it everywhere, or if reporting is inconsistent? What if I tell you that Canada—a geographically close, similarly developed Western country—has a rate of 787 deaths per million people?
Context around unfamiliar terms. I’m all in favor of assuming you have a smart, educated audience, but all of us may not use your specialized language on a regular basis. You may (appropriately) use a term of art that needs what I call a “six-word definition” to tell or remind readers what it is. Example: “Our products create customer value by improving optionality.” As a reader I know what an option is in a generic sense, and I know even in a financial/investing sense, but what is “optionality,” and what does it mean to improve it? A revised sentence with more context might be: “Our products create customer value by improving optionality—that is, our products keep more strategic paths open, so clients have more choices available to them when their business situation changes.” (Yes, I know that’s more than six words…)
Offer concrete examples.
As with jargon and specialized terminology, abstract concepts can cause readers to feel untethered, to have difficulty “wrapping their minds around” something. Abstractions are absolutely needed, but when presenting a new concept to readers, especially in more technical writing, a concrete example helps them get anchored. Example: In this article, I’m describing each approach in an abstract sense and then providing a concrete example, such as a revised sentence.
Another example: I can advise you: “To improve readability in your nonfiction book, use a common structure.” Good advice—unless you don’t know what I mean by “common structure.”
Consider how much easier it is to understand if I say: “To improve readability in your nonfiction book, use a common structure, such as chronology, process, principles, or argument.” Even though you might like me to elaborate on each of those structures, they are concrete enough examples to give you an idea what I mean by “common structure.”
Use connective language.
When the writing feels “choppy” or when readers have trouble connecting the dots from one idea to the next, the solution may be fairly simple: insert some connective language. Transition words like “in this case…,” “and from here we go to…,” or “in other words…” act like those arrows on the signs at IKEA to make sure you can find your way past every display and still make it out of the store (through the checkout lines of course).
Tip: If you use Yoast on your WordPress website, one of the “readability” indicators is for transition words. If fewer than 30% of your sentences have transition words, Yoast will flag that as an area for improvement. (Apparently I’m doing okay on this article—I got the “green” light.)
Try a conversational approach.
Finally, if readers say the writing is stiff or that there just isn’t enough there, or if you feel like there isn’t enough there, try talking through your content with someone. By having a conversation, you’ll discover the content gaps as well as find more natural language.
When I work with ghostwriting clients, I set up information-gathering conversations as an interview. We create a list of key topics and develop questions about them. I ask the questions and the author shares their knowledge in a back-and-forth exchange, which allows me to probe for more information—especially helpful when they don’t even realize it is needed. We record the conversation and have it transcribed, which provides the base text to work with. Many authors are surprised by the amount of content captured; additionally, their natural voice comes through more easily, which better engages readers.
For more on how you can use this process, read “Trouble Getting That First Draft on the Page? Speak Your Book.”
Finding the right balance
In the first edition of The Elements of Style, William Strunk wrote, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
The key word, though, is “necessary.”
Yes, you want to be concise, but you also need to be complete. Finding the right balance is like performing on a gymnastics beam—if you tip too much one way or the other, you fall off. Or rather, if your book tips too much one way or the other, your readers will disengage—from the fatigue of wading through too many words, or the effort of trying to guess at what’s missing.
In this instance, perhaps better advice comes from Marcus Fabius Quintilian: “One should aim not at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.”
Not sure if you’ve found the right balance? That’s one of the things we work on in coaching and that I’ll pay attention to in manuscript critiques. For more info, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919.609.2817.