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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Be brief, or not?

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

cutting out wordiness

When I ask audiences to select their top challenge in creating effective messages, what do you think they pick? Being more audience-centered? More balanced? More descriptive?

It is none of these. Overwhelming, out of the 10 characteristics of “words that work” I describe in my talk, they select being more concise.

Are you wordy or concise? Be honest.

It’s true, we are often too wordy. Our key points get lost. Our listeners or readers get bored… or confused… or distracted, and stop paying attention. Follow this timeless advice from Thomas Jefferson: “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

To illustrate how effective this can be, rewrite the 13-word sentence below using only 5 words (feel free to use different words that retain the meaning):

"There has been an increase in the amount of pizza consumed by teenagers."

__________ __________ __________ __________ __________

Can’t do it? My answer is at the bottom. Notice that the new sentence is active and no longer passive. It has more vigor and clarity.

How do you achieve concise writing?

Edit ruthlessly. Analyze every word and make each one count. I love this example of editing ruthlessly from Malcolm Forbes, “How to write a business letter”:


“Somebody has said that words are a lot like inflated money – the more of them that you use, the less each one of them is worth. Right on. Go through your entire letter just as many times as it takes. Search out and annihilate all unnecessary words, and sentences – even entire paragraphs.” (52 words)


“Words are like inflated money – the more you use, the less each one is worth. Go through your entire letter as many times as it takes. Annihilate all unnecessary words, sentences – even paragraphs.” (33 words)

Do you agree - the "after" retains all of the meaning with less filler and better flow? But, is brevity always better?

Can you ever be too brief?

It’s unlikely given our tendency to ramble needlessly. However, if you haven’t provided adequate evidence to support your point your message may be too brief. Be clear. Be concise. But be complete.

Another argument against excessive brevity is said best in this piece written by Gary Provost. It beautifully illustrates the importance of giving your writing a pleasing rhythm. If in our striving to be concise we construct only brief sentences our writing will sound choppy and lack variety.

An argument to write sentences varying in length by Gary Provost.

Whatever you are currently writing, set it aside and come back to it later with fresh eyes and a figurative pair of scissors. Cut out the unnecessary words. Make it more concise but maintain the meaning. Give it a pleasing balance of short, medium, and longer sentences.

Edit ruthlessly and make each word count.

“If it takes a lot of words to say what you have in mind, give it more thought.” ~ Dennis Roth

Answer: Teenagers are eating more pizza.

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