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issue 53

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Training Bulletin Issue 53

No conciseness, please, we're British

We like to think of ourselves as people who get to the point and don't waffle.

Unfortunately, that's not how others see us. In our previous bulletin, we looked at some of the differences between American and British usage of English. A more subtle difference is in the degree of wordiness: Americans are likely to get straight to the point – so much so that they can seem a bit abrupt, or even rude – and Brits are more likely to be wordy, perhaps in an attempt to be polite. A recent newspaper article reported that we waste up to 1.7 million words in waffle over a lifetime. That's bad enough if it's in speech, but how much of your readers' time are you wasting if your writing is long-winded too?

(As an exercise, I have simply crossed out, rather than deleted, the words I removed from my first draft of this newsletter, so you can see how I have made it more concise. Deleting the crossed-out words would make this 61 words shorter.)

Read on to learn how to make your writing more concise without losing any meaning – and without sounding rude either.

Why are you writing?

You do need to be clear on what you are trying to achieve with a piece of text. Extra words are fine if you are writing for drama and emphasis, if you want to create a mood or entertain your reader – but this is not what business writing does. Business writing mostly informs and as such needs to be concise.

If you are writing to emphasise or persuade, for example, in a proposal, or to sell, then you can put in extra words if they contribute to your purpose.

But if you know your reader is busy, or is reading your text on a computer, respect their time and the amount of effort involved by keeping it concise.

Being concise is harder than being wordy

Blaise Pascal famously apologised to a friend for the length of a letter he had sent, saying he didn't have time to make it shorter. To get rid of waffle, you do need to go over your writing and prune the unnecessary words, and this takes time and effort. For many people in a hurry, it's easier just to hit “send” and leave it to their reader to wade through their waffle.

Doing that job yourself instead of foisting it onto your recipient shows that you respect their time. So here are some things to look for in your writing – and once you get into the regular habit of doing this, it becomes easier. Also, once alerted to these unnecessary words, you will gradually use them less and less.

Avoid clichés

These are like a motor idling at a traffic light – the engine runs but the car isn't going anywhere. The text flows, but there is no new information. Get rid of them.

At the end of the dayWhen all is said and doneTried and tested
Hard and fast Plain and simpleEach and every
For all intents and purposesWhiter than whiteAs a matter of fact
For all I knowIn a manner of speakingLast but not least

Avoid tautology

Tautology or redundancy is when you are saying the same thing twice:

Free giftVarious differentPast history
Future plansUnexpected surpriseTrue fact
Essential principleForeign importsTo go forward
To return backTo meet togetherAnd also

Don't qualify absolutes

All of These either are or they are not; they do not exist in degree:

Totally realVery uniqueSlightly pregnant
Utterly lost Absolutely trueSomewhat unsure
Very sureCompletely black/whiteEntirely correct
Exactly the sameWildly differentExtremely inadequate

If the word implies the category, you don't need to give the category:

Quite A subtle point but once you're aware of it, you'll see this a lot:

Late in arrivingSmall in size
Blue in colour Square in shape
Heavy in weightBeautiful in appearance

Do any of these words actually say anything at all?

VeryReallyPerhaps
MaybeJustQuite
BasicallyActually Generally

Be alert to “it”

Avoid using phrases that start with “it is” or “it has”, unless you are referring to something specific, eg, it has four sides and a lid on top, or you're talking about the weather or the time.

This means any construction such as “it is (something) that” can be dropped or re-worded:

It has long been known that… We know
It is widely considered that…We consider
It is probable that…Probably
It is reasonable to assume that…We assume
It goes without saying that… (All of this can be dropped)
It is understandable that…(So can this)

What about being polite?

If you are asking for help or for a favour, you don't want to sound as if you're giving an order, especially if you're writing to a client or a more senior staff member. But be careful not to go overboard with the politeness because it can make you sound weak or lacking in confidence. This is where There's a cultural difference, too: not only the British, but some European and Middle Eastern cultures might find the following exchange a bit abrupt:

You could email a colleague and say, “I need you to research this for me today.”

Your colleague might reply, “I haven't got time.”

At the other extreme, you could write, “I'm sorry to bother you but I have to produce a report on a really tight deadline and I wonder if you could help me out by looking into a couple of matters for me. It'll only take a few hours. Don't worry if it's not convenient.”

Your colleague might reply, “I'm awfully sorry but I'm just about to go into a meeting and I have no idea how long it's going to last. So I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to help you with this, not if you're on a deadline.”

You are better off avoiding either of these extremes: “I would be very grateful for your help in producing a report – I'm on a tight deadline. Do you have any time today to do some research?”

A suitable reply to this would be, “Sorry, can't help today, about to go in to a long meeting.”

Without relying too much on cultural stereotypes, the best advice is to consider your recipient and their usual style of writing, and try to match it. If you don't know them that well, err on the side of more politeness, rather than being too abrupt.

Most of our writing courses offer practice and further tips on identifying and getting rid of unnecessary words and content. To find out more, contact us: .

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