The internet did a funny thing: it gave us unlimited space to communicate ideas, while flooding us so full of information that we barely read. Information now travels through headlines and tweets, where length is measured in characters, rather than words.
The editing rules I learned in journalism school were also driven by limited space—we were still counting inches of print rather than characters—but they also make for good, crisp writing that gets noticed in today’s world of limited attention spans. Paring your writing down allows you to say more in less space. The first time I wrote a tweet felt like a school writing exercise: Write. Be told it’s too long. Eliminate every word you can. Repeat until it fits.
Putting a limit on your writing forces brevity, but it also makes you hawk-eyed to certain words or phrases that are just fillers. Here’s a short list of common offenders you can eliminate without doing harm:
- Have the ability to / give an opportunity to / are in a position to. Just say “can” or “may.”
- In order to. Scrap two words and leave it at “to.”
- In our opinion / we believe it to be. If you or your organization is the author, it’s a given that you believe your own statements and hold the opinions expressed. Make declarative statements with confidence.
- As to whether / whether or not. “Whether” by itself will suffice.
- Which is different from. Replace with “unlike” and save three words.
- At the present time. Use “today,” “now,” or just skip altogether.
- There is / the reason for. Rather than saying “There is a car that is traveling 60 mph,” say “the car is traveling 60 mph.” Rather than saying “The reason for,” simply state the reason.
- What we have seen is. Shorten to “we saw” or “we found.”
- Through the extension of. Simply say “by extending.” This goes for almost every version of “through the __ of.”
In each of these examples, we’re removing a word or two. But those changes add up over several sentences or pages.
Avoiding passive voice can also save space and increase clarity. Instead of “the partnership was formed by two states,” say “Two states formed the partnership.” It makes your prose snappier and ensures you always state who is responsible for every action.
Finally, remember that length does not equal substance. Good ideas have an effect, no matter how succinct you are.