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In corporate life I've come across two general styles of writing: terse and cryptic or long and complete.

In my own writing I tend to go too much in the "explain all possible interpretations" direction rather than the "leave as much out as possible" direction.

Is there a way to do both? Write about complex matters simply and engagingly? Or are you always torn between the two extremes: either write not enough and follow up with the reader or write too much and risk boring them or losing them?

And if there is such a way, how do you know when you've hit it?

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8 Answers

Email should be as brief as possible. Tutorials and direct answers to questions should be longer. Documentation should be longer still.

Unless you have a specific reason to believe that they will go down the wrong path, it's generally a poor idea to explain a line of reasoning or action that is not advised. When explaining the right path, the appropriate depth is entirely dependent on the reader -- there is no universally correct level of detail.

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The classic answer comes from Strunk & White's The Elements of Style:

Omit needless words.

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. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

I see a lot of overwriting in my corporate life. I believe much of it stems from writers who lack confidence in their ability to produce clear prose. I also believe it stems from writers attempting to sound intelligent.

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Agreed. ".. that every word tell." –  Stu Andrews Feb 6 '11 at 21:47
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You must understand your audience. If you have their attention for 10 minutes, say everything you need to say in five. Obviously shorter is better, but there are times when a longer phrase can hold a person's attention better than a short one.

Give the reader the core of your concepts up front (first sentence in a paragraph is a good way) and tuck more details where they fit.

If you can, I'd highly recommend finding a peer to review it briefly before you send it out. Silently measure how long they keep their attention on the piece you wrote.

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It's not an either/or. It's a continuum from minimal to maximum. I would first ensure you have each level documented at a minimum level before moving up to the higher level.

It also depends upon the type of writing. Marketing/sales writing is as different from API reference writing as a TV script is from a novel.

Can you get any reader feedback? Do you have an editor available?

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I tend to see writers follow four stages.

Incompetent, verbose, terse, and effective.

At first a writer spills forth with drivel, barely able to form a coherent work. Frequently this is stream of consciousness writing without any mental editing to what is said and no expounding upon an idea.

Eventually the writer learns to express themselves better. During the verbose stage they write a lot, pages and pages of detailed and perhaps even coherent paragraphs.

Then they learn to trim the fat from their writing. The readers imagination should be enough to fill in the blanks, and the writer is only there to guide the reader to a destination.

At last the writer can see the difference in their words and how they effect the reader. Situational choices are made to expound greatly on a single thought or to simply outline it and leave it up to the readers imagination.

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Read some Hemingway. He managed to be immensely effective and sometimes immensely moving, with short simple sentences and a Flesch-Kincaide score of about 5th grade.

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I've written 9 screenplays (one of which got made into a movie, Solitary) and I'm currently working on my first book. (I'm a programmer by trade. Writing is a hobby.)

When I first start writing dialog, I had a hard time. My dialog was what I call ping-pong dialog, i.e. dialog that went back and forth too much. I found that I could compress 4 dialog lines into 1 or 2.

In the process of learning how to write dialog, I spent a lot of time reading it aloud and I still read everything I write out loud (including my book). And when something doesn't work, my first step is to REMOVE IT.

If nothing is lost then I've fixed the problem (BTW, I find this approach helpful in programming as well. When I'm deleting code, I'm usually doing the right thing.) And most of the time this works. But when it's a necessary piece of information, then I apply another rule of mine, Smallest change, largest impact.

The idea is to make the smallest change, in this case add back the fewest words necessary to convey the previously deleted idea.

Writing screenplays is an exercise in parsimony. Try reading screenplays to see how the professionals say more with less words.

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As D-Day said in his answer, being concise is key. But you need to be concise in your thoughts as well.

Don't expound on a topic if you don't need to. If you are asked a question, answer it and stop.

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