Five tips for delivering clarity (even at the expense of brevity)

I have a well-deserved reputation for “writing long” at times.  I’ve edited documents and provided suggestions that make the original significantly longer.  But does that mean I’m less clear than someone who writes “short?”  Absolutely not.

Mark Twain is remembered for apologizing for the length of a letter by saying it would have been shorter if he had more time.  Having the time to edit is a great thing.  But it can also be frustrating to deal with critics who are poised like raptors to point out that your e-mail directive asking for feedback or input is longer than the size of their computer screen — as if that’s a mortal sin.

In many cases where clarity is an issue, the problem is not too much information, it’s just poorly organized.  Dictionaries work because the words are in alphabetical order;  change the organization and a dictionary is pretty much useless. 

Length in and of itself is not a determinant of clarity or simplicity.  Cutting content may eliminate wordiness, but it may also eliminate critical information that helps readers understand the actions or gain perspective that the writer wants.

Warren Buffett’s annual letter to stockholders is a great example.  It’s long — 18 pages — but readers flock to it for its insight (how his businesses have dealt with the financial crisis), its humor, and its views of where the economy is headed.  I’ve never seen a word of complaint about its length, because the content is so valuable.

My advice is to worry less about the length of your e-mails, PowerPoints, and other writings and more about how you’ve organized them.  Here are a few suggestions on ways to drive clarity, even if it is at the expense of brevity.

  • Use bullets, particularly for action items.  Length isn’t important if your reader clearly understands what you want them to do…and by when.
  • Consider your audience — who should get it and perhaps more important, who shouldn’t.  I’ve found that the people who whine the most about length are the ones who are least likely to respond anyway.
  • Use subheads where appropriate.  This includes tables of content, indexes, and other navigational aids.  Vary your type (size, color, and boldness, not typeface) for emphasis and to draw the eyes to key points.
  • Proofread.  Between what Twittering and IMs and the like have done to people’s ability to communicate (particularly as it relates to spelling, punctuation, and word usage) and the desire to “publish” quickly, clarity often breaks down in the absence of the final “attention to detail” step.  If you have time, ask someone else to read your document and tell you what you are asking the reader to do.  Revise as necessary.
  • Add a fourth word to those ABC’s mentioned above: Euphony.  Making the document flow and sound or read in a pleasing, agreeable manner is a key component.  It may take a few more words, but it’s well worth the effort.

Bulldog Simplicity celebrates clarity over brevity (although clear and short are certainly preferable).  Your goal should be to ensure that everyone understands their responsibilities and their next steps and that it’s written in such a way that boredom or indifference doesn’t lead them to stop reading before the end.