A friend of mine had a contract to write a business-to-business book. The corporation’s managers provided an outline of what they wanted the book to say, and they scheduled conference calls after each chapter.
A straightforward plan.
But after the writer submitted chapter 1 — in which she clearly covered every point the corporation wanted to communicate to its customers — the managers expressed great disappointment:
“We were expecting 30 to 40 pages in chapter 1, and you have submitted only seven.”
My friend replied: “You certainly can have 30 to 40 pages, but they will be unreadable, because in order to fill those pages, everything in those original seven pages will have to be repeated several times.”
The managers apparently mistook length for value.
The writer tried to explain the value of brevity. Lacking a meeting of minds, the managers and the writer parted ways.
Businesses do well to heed the advice of professional writers — whether in-house or external — to keep communication simple and brief. To make the writing show “you say what you mean,” do it economically; you will be doing a great service for your company and for your target audience.
Remember: If you stop or slow down a reader, you risk the loss of that reader.
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a sonnet that begins, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
To paraphrase, How do I bore thee? Let me count the ways:
1. Gratuitous repetition.
2. Verbosity: As a critic observed about a verbose writer, “He never uses four words when 11 will do.”
3. Gilding the lily: That would be smearing gold paint onto the petals of an already lovely flower.
Years ago, my friend Ken, a gifted musician and composer, created jingles for radio and TV commercials. Thanks to Ken’s talent, his employer enjoyed great success.
But Ken dreaded the times his employer would accompany him on a meeting with a client to demonstrate a new jingle. Before Ken could show his stuff, his employer would launch into a tortured and endless ramble, thinking it would endear him to the client.
At one of these meetings the client squirmed and squirmed and squirmed and — finally — exploded: “Get to the point!”
The company lost that sale.
Get to the verb. Close the deal. Make the sale.
Keep faith with the writer Elmore Leonard: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
Gary Gilson, a Twin Cities writing coach and five-time Emmy Award winner in public television, has taught writing-intensive journalism courses at Colorado College for 22 years. Contact him through: writebetterwithgary.com.