Use fewer words: Tips for saying more with less

Cut to the chase. Get to the point. Spit it out. Less is more. Keep it simple. Doing more with less is such a universal idea it comes with a whole set of dedicated idioms. It’s also a powerful tool for writers who want – and need – to communicate effectively.
Japanese Zen rock garden to convey the idea of beauty in simplicity.
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Once upon a time, every extra letter meant more ink, more paper, more work and more expense. These days, on-screen real estate isn’t in short supply, but your readers’ time and attention certainly are. The enduring challenge is to say what you need to say, as succinctly and effectively as possible.

Elaborate prose serves a purpose in fiction and poetry, but in corporate and marketing communications you need to say your piece before the audience loses interest. This doesn’t mean your writing needs to be characterless or boring. Every day, we work on documents that deliver a clear, effective message in a distinct, engaging voice. In the world of words, eloquence = economy + elegance.

Using fewer words is just one tool in the Plain English toolkit, along with choosing simpler words, shorter sentences and more active phrasing. Here are some tips for putting it to work.

1. Simplify, simplify

Why use three words when one will do? Opt for shorter phrases – or even one heavy-lifting word.

perform an analysis of > analyse

conduct a review of > review

provide advice to > advise

is able to > can

provide support to > help, assist, support

in relation to, in connection with > regarding, about

in the course of > during, while

on an annual basis > yearly, annually

at this point in time > currently, now

2. Trim the fat

Think about words you could eliminate altogether. ‘However’, ‘thus’ and ‘furthermore’ are rarely necessary. Try not to use too many adjectives or adverbs. Avoid tautology: if something was improved or resolved, for example, you don’t need to add that it was done ‘successfully’ – the success is evident.

Instead of: The introduction of the new process successfully addressed a number of issues; however, there were some difficult challenges still remaining.

Try: Although the new process addressed several issues, some challenges remained.

Instead of: The new software was effective in achieving a 20 per cent reduction in time to market.

Try: The new software reduced time to market by 20 per cent.

3. Stop nouning verbs

It’s a classic pet peeve among editors: nouning verbs. When you use a verb as a verb, your writing sounds more active, direct, confident and engaging.

Instead of: We spent 10 days on the deployment of the new system.

Try: We spent 10 days deploying the new system.

Instead of: The introduction of a new policy will ensure the delivery of several benefits.

Try: Introducing a new policy will deliver several benefits.

4. Don’t overcomplicate things

You’d think this is the same as simplifying, but there’s a slight difference. Some commonly misused words and phrases are more efficient in their correct form. For example:

revert back to > revert to

a myriad of > myriad

comprises of > comprises (often confused with ‘is composed of’)

5. Write first, edit later

A big part of our work is honing the message – Michelangelo liberating David from the monolith, as it were. It’s okay to get your thoughts on paper then come back with fresh eyes to ‘Marie Kondo’ your writing – or have an expert editor do it for you.

Bonus grammar lesson: You may be wondering which is correct: ‘less words’ or ‘fewer words’? For countable things, the answer is ‘fewer’: fewer words, fewer cars, fewer dollars. We switch to ‘less’ for things that are uncountable or counted as a singular mass: less writing, less traffic, less money.

By Olivia McDowell

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