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Know When To Stop

No matter what you’re writing, if you get carried away by your own words, you’ll lose your audience.

Mark Twain told a story about sitting in church one day. The preacher was giving an inspiring sermon on the subject of a worthy cause.

He was asking the members of the congregation to contribute, and Mark Twain was so moved by the quality of the preacher’s words that he decided to contribute the $400 he had in his pocket. However, the preacher went on. And on. The longer he preached, the more Twain reduced the amount he intended to donate.

By the time the sermon ended and the collection plate was passed, he stole a dime from it.

I don’t know how true this story is, especially since Mark Twain was known for spinning tales. In the Tik Tok generation and the shortened attention-span world, its moral still applies: Keep it short.

Short is Sweet

We can’t figure out how to make our writing more succinct unless we understand what makes it too long. The following suggestion applies to all written forms: emails, memos, reports, speeches, articles, and books.

We fall in love with our own words.

Words can be magic, and we get lost in their spell. We may get excited about how one idea gives birth to another, and we want to write down all of them because they make such compelling sense in our own heads.

This rapture can have a dark side. Sometimes people think what they have to say is more important than what others want to say. They ignore time or word count limits. Unfortunately, the longer they talk or write, the less attention people pay to them.

We repeat ourselves.

Sometimes this is necessary. If you’re explaining a complex concept, you may need to use a range of approaches. The key here is to choose these explanations and express them in the simplest terms. Try them out on people who aren’t familiar with the subject. If they have “Aha” moments, you’ve done a good job.

In addition, check your text to see if you repeat the same words or phrases over and over again. Everyone has special fondness for particular words. We use them frequently without realizing it. Watch out for clichés. They trigger the inattention button.

We fail to zero in on the topic.

If you’re going to write or speak on the subject of the challenges that women entrepreneurs face during this pandemic, do not precede this with a detailed history of women entrepreneurialism. You may need to refer to this history for comparative purposes, but keep it brief.

We don’t do a sound editing job.

In a first draft, any of the previous errors can weaken what one has written. You can save a lot of time if you catch them prior to the editing stage, but if you didn’t, now you need to tighten up your writing and ruthlessly edit it. Put the edited version aside for a day or so, and then return to it.

  1. Is it succinct?
  2. Does it say what it needs to say?
  3. Is it engaging?
  4. Is anyone going to steal a dime from the collection plate?

For some additional specific suggestions, see How to Harness the Power of Brevity in Your Writing. 

Pat Iyer is an editor who delights in working with authors to streamline their writing. Contact her for help by using the contact form: patiyer.com/contact.

Patricia Iyer

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