Jeffrey Seglin on Two Keys to Good Writing: Be Brief and Be Clear

The following is a guest post by Jeffrey L. Seglin, coauthor with Edward Coleman of The AMA Handbook of Business Letters, Fourth Edition.

Writing clearly has always been critical to successfully getting a message across to a reader. You can create a brilliant piece of writing, but it will fail if your reader can’t understand what you’re talking about.

As the volume of writing we are barraged with on a daily basis has increased, the need to write clearly and succinctly has increased. Whether we’re writing a letter, email, text message, white paper, report, memo, or any number of other forms, our goal should be to embrace clarity and to deliver our messages in as tightly edited a package as possible.

We’ve all seen needlessly complicated phrases or jargon creep into the material we read every day. Why write “at this point in time,” when “now” will not only suffice but will get to the point more quickly?

A good exercise for any writer is to give yourself enough time after you’ve written an initial draft to go back and edit out a good percentage of the excess words in your message. It’s always been a good idea to do this, but with the advent of email and other short forms of message delivery, the need grows even larger. You want to capture your reader’s attention in the first sentence or two of your message. You want to avoid the reader getting bogged down in convoluted sentences that take too much work to figure out. Many people read the first sentence or two of an email and want those first sentences to tell them enough to know why you’re writing them and why they should care.

My coauthor and I edited the hundreds of sample letters in the previous three editions of The AMA Handbook of Business Letters so they read as clearly and concisely as possible. As we were working on the fourth edition we took the time to edit them even more for clarity and length. By tightening the writing we found that the letters ended up even stronger than before. It’s an exercise that anyone seeking to strengthen his or her writing would do well to follow.

Readers can be impatient. Don’t make them work too hard to figure out what you’re writing about.

This is particularly true when it comes to writing clearly and avoiding jargon and convoluted constructions. Recently I received an email filling in board members on the provisional status of a not-for-profit with which I work. The email included a letter that was intended to clarify the not-for-profit’s standing with the state government. But the terms and acronyms were not clearly defined anywhere in the letter. A long phone call followed in which we had to ask the sender of the email to tell us if the news we received was good or bad. (It was good.)

Regardless of the industry you’re working in, no reader should have to work so hard to figure out the basic intention of any piece of writing you share with them.

Jacket image, The AMA Handbook of Business Letters, Fourth EditionWrite, read, edit for length and clarity. Be brief and be clear and your written messages to others will be far more likely to achieve your desired outcome.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He writes a weekly ethics column called “The Right Thing,” syndicated by Tribune Media Services. He is the co-author with Edward Coleman of The AMA Handbook of Business Letters.
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