Writing is hard because writing is thinking. It’s putting ideas in a certain order, grouping them, moving them around. Deleting them with a flourish of disgust. Hitting a groove and whipping out words as quick as you can think them. What most people end up with is a big pile of ideas, which is wonderful.
I’m always excited to work with a team that has a lot of ideas. That’s a much better starting place than a blank page. But not all ideas need to make it on the page—or at least not the same page. Winston Churchill had the right idea when he penned this memo on brevity in 1940, setting out in a single page (so meta) his requirements for policy papers that he’s expected to read. The memo is stoic, but I delight in reading it as grumpy: “I ask my colleagues and their staffs to see to it that their Reports are shorter.” Enough with the riff raff!
As Winston was busy, so are your intended readers. His guidance is gold, but in the modern era and for the thought leadership reader, a bit of narrative is necessary. I’m not suggesting Winston eschewed a good story, but it clearly wasn’t his priority.
For me—and for most readers, especially if they’re business executives, government leaders, or parents—the narrative is key. But it should still be succinct. Here are a few tips on paring your content down so your piece sticks in the minds of your readers.
• Don’t treat it like your only shot at a seminal dissertation. Overstuffing a narrative is the quickest way to kill it for readers. Most audiences don’t want to read everything you know—they want the key takeaways as related to a specific subject. Make it easy for the reader to find the gist, and silence the inner voice suggesting this is your only shot at publishing your ideas.
• Clarify your audience in the title, dek, or first sentence. It should be obvious from a glance who would benefit from reading this article. If it’s about how tech start-ups are disrupting traditional industry leaders, clarify whether you’re speaking to the start-ups or the leaders. If your data are focused on Europe and your examples are all German, then the content should be clearly packaged for readers in that region, who share that industry context.
• Avoid throat-clearing. We need not spend a bunch of time and word count describing the situation. My pet peeve used to be articles that started “The internet has changed everything.” Recently that’s evolved into “COVID has changed everything,” often by forcing industries to digitalize. A wise editor (Allan Gold) taught me that you could pretty much always cut the first paragraph of an early draft and not lose much, since it can take the writer a while to get going. That’s throat clearing.
• Embrace your editor. Everyone needs an editor. I’m an editor, and I need an editor as much as anyone. (Thanks, Annie!) Your ideas will land better with more people if you allow someone to help you structure and revise it. Sometimes you don’t even need a skilled editor, only a second reader for a sanity check. Whatever you’re trying to write, accept help—particularly when the advice includes paring down the focus or number of ideas.
• Choose purposeful, directive headings. For a busy audience, any text longer than a few hundred words benefits from headings breaking apart the narrative. These headings should be short (aim for three to eight words) and serve as an easily skimmable outline of the piece. Some clever turns of phrase are OK, but it should still be clear from a few words what the reader will get from that section. This is particularly crucial in long, multichapter reports that readers are unlikely to read from top to bottom. Give them options for how to engage.
• Learn to stop churning. It’s tempting to continue adding to the list. I added this bullet after getting the first round of edits back. But it’s a reminder that we can always add and add and add—it’s human nature to explain. At a certain point, you need to close it out. It’s never going to be perfect, but it can be finished.