Sunday, November 26, 2017

Make Every Word Matter

Work-related documents requires concision; we should remove verbiage. This truism is easier said than done if one loves classical literature. I dare not change John Donne's final lines from his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, XVII (1624). The repetition of tolls is, well, poetic:
Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 
I harbor no ill feeling toward Charles Dickens's opening of A Tale of Two Cities (1859), which paints a picture of discord and chaos through its repetition:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
And I dare not argue about the repetition in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech (1963). In the final 5 minutes of that legendary address at the Lincoln Memorial, King uses dream 10 times, followed by a paragraph about faith 3 times, followed by freedom 9 times, and ending with free 3 times. The repetition is what makes his speech as memorable as the spirituals and anthems he borrows from.

But business and technical writers rarely need such repetition. Here is an example of adding useless words: 
The company is currently monitoring the situation in order to work out a solution. (14 words)
The present continuous tense, is monitoring, eliminates the need for currently. The prepositional phrase, in order, is unnecessary since a clearer, though weak, infinitive phrase, to work outfollows it. That infinitive phrase is weak, and it is followed by a noun phrase, a solution, when a verb phrase, to resolve it, would have been stronger. So a 9-word rewrite would look like this:
The company is monitoring the situation to resolve it.
This 36% reduction in word count is not as rare as you might think. We tend to read business messages just to get information, not to assess the writer's style. But the next time you run through a boring, ambiguous message, don't be surprised if the writer didn't edit out verbiage. Writers should take a second look at their emails and reports before pressing send to make sure that every word matters and their readers get the point.