Have you read Tolstoy’s War and Peace? Have you tackled Proust’s In Search of Lost Time? How about Cervantes’s Don Quixote or Joyce’s Ulysses? It doesn’t take a genius to work out why so many people struggle to complete these epic classics: Long texts are daunting. This is as true of an email as it is of a historical novel. Scholars Todd Rogers and Jessica Lasky-Fink underline the importance of brevity in writing. If you want to maximize your messages’ reach and effectiveness, read their concise advice.
- If you want your writing to strike a chord with your audience, remember the golden rule: Less is more.
- Shorter texts reduce “early quitting,” a reader’s tendency to abandon a text before reaching the end.
- Sending unnecessarily long emails disrespects your readers’ time.
- Most people lack formal training in the art of succinct writing and editing.
If you want your writing to strike a chord with your audience, remember the golden rule: Less is more.
On average, white-collar professionals spend a third of their working time responding to the scores of emails and messages they receive each day. No sooner have you responded to one message than another pops into your inbox. Staying abreast of the deluge is a Sisyphean task.
“Readers often interpret the length of a message as an indication of how difficult and time-consuming it will be to respond to.”
According to the prevailing wisdom, the longer the text, the better. Several theories attempt to explain this phenomenon: Perhaps grade school policies that forced student assignments to aim for a certain word count have lingering effects in adulthood. Or maybe writers believe they appear smarter if they have more to say. Or possibly people fear they will omit something of import if they don’t commit all their thoughts to paper. Whatever the reason for unnecessary verbiage, the result is that wordy texts are less likely to be read.
Shorter texts reduce “early quitting,” a reader’s tendency to abandon a text before reaching the end.
When a study gave subjects the option to tackle a short or a long email first, 165 of 166 respondents opted for the shorter text. Readers perceive longer texts as more complicated and time-consuming.
“In the worst case, a wordy message will be relegated to the same fate as the hundreds of other messages that languish in inboxes, never to be read.”
In another study, researchers sent two variations of an email – one, 127 words; the other, 49 words – requesting recipients to complete a short online survey. The shorter email elicited a response rate of 4.8%; the longer email, a mere 2.7%. Many recipients of the longer email didn’t read to the end. These early quitters skimmed the text, became overwhelmed and moved on. Though many intended to return to the text later, most did not.
Sending unnecessarily long emails disrespects your readers’ time.
Imagine you send a three-paragraph email to, say, 120 employees. You carefully select each word, and the finished product is almost a thing of beauty. Yet, assuming all the staffers open and read the email, your colleagues collectively spend four hours reading your message. If you cut your email by a single paragraph, reducing the content to its bare essence, you save 80 minutes of your colleagues’ time.
“Even when ineffectively written communications are read, they impose an unkind tax on readers’ time.”
To write pithy texts, be ruthless: Cut any redundant phrasing. Nancy Gibbs, a former editor in chief of Time, advised her writers that “every word has to earn its place in a sentence, every sentence has to earn its place in a paragraph, and every idea has to earn its place in a text.”
Most people lack formal training in the art of succinct writing and editing.
Students don’t learn the basics of concise writing and editing at school. When a University of Virginia study asked participants to edit a text, 83% of test subjects added words to the text, rather than removing any. Thus, reducing the length of a text is not an innate skill.
“Spending a little more time upfront to be concise saves readers and writers time by reducing follow-ups, misunderstandings, and requests left unfulfilled.”
Nevertheless, readers are more likely to read, absorb and engage with short, pithy texts. If you invest time in shortening your message, it will reach a larger audience. Moreover, you will ultimately save your recipients’ time, as well as your own, because clearer writing requires fewer follow-ups and explanations.
About the Authors
Todd Rogers is a professor of public policy at Harvard University. He teaches communicators how to write better for busy audiences. Jessica Lasky-Fink is the research director at the People Lab. She applies insights from behavioral science to improve the delivery of government services and programs. Rogers and Lasky-Fink co-wrote Writing for Busy Readers.