Last week, we set our readers a challenge: to shorten a paragraph and tweet it to us at @EmphasisWriting, with the hashtag #EmphasisTest, using Stan Carey’s tips on writing concisely for Twitter.
We’ve had some excellent responses – which you can see here on Storify – and choosing a winner has been very tricky indeed.
The paragraph given was:
It is generally agreed among writing specialists that the more unnecessary detail you include in a piece of prose, the more work it becomes for the typical reader. Or as the English poet Robert Browning expressed it: ‘Less is more.’
What to keep in?
This paragraph breaks down into three concepts: first, that this is advice from writing experts; second, that unnecessary detail makes it harder for your reader; and, third, that Browning summed it up with ‘Less is more’.
These three elements are vital to conveying the meaning of the paragraph. Remove the first and you lose the context. Remove the second and you lose the advice. Remove the third and you lose the wit.
Most people who responded sensed this and kept all three, reducing the character count by trimming. But a few opted for a more strident approach. For example:
(Doesn’t give any advice about how to achieve it, or why, and omits the quotation.)
These are both nice and snappy, and work well on their own. But they don’t convey the whole sense of the original paragraph. Whenever you’re editing, especially if it’s someone else’s material, be cautious when cutting content.
Make sure that you only cut unnecessary detail, and otherwise restrict yourself to tightening up the wording and phrasing. Be careful, also, not to introduce suggestions that weren’t in the original. For example:
(Omits the quotation, then adds a sense of incompleteness with ‘at least’ and ‘[agree] on one thing’.)
Choose your words carefully
When you’re trying to shave off a character here and a character there, it can be tempting to switch to a shorter word or an abbreviation, even if it slightly changes the meaning. Treat this temptation with caution.
In the following example, the tweeter saved five letters by replacing ‘unnecessary details’ with ‘useless details’.
However, useless and unnecessary have subtly different meanings. The former is of no use, no merit, ever. The latter is simply not needed – possibly ever, or possibly just at this time or in this situation. For the sake of brevity, needless could be a good alternative. It’s one character longer than useless, but then you can scrape one back again by cutting details to detail. Be strict, too, with your contractions. The there’s in the tweet below, for example, feels rather unnatural.
An alternative might have been to spell out the there is, but contract the it will to it’ll.
Keep an eye on tone
As anyone who’s ever sent a ‘cheeky’ email that landed them in hot water will know, in writing there’s a fine line between wit and bad manners. You can’t count on the person reading your message in the same playful spirit that you wrote it. Combine this with the fact that brevity can sometimes come across as brusqueness, and you’ve got a small but perfectly formed powder keg.
I don’t think I’d dare to word client advice like this, for example:
The shortlist We’ve received many excellent tweets, and choosing between them has been very difficult. We loved this one (though note it comes from a professional editor):
And this one (again, a professional editor):
And this one (though we’d suggest using a single em- or en-dash before ‘Robert Browning’, rather than brackets):
And many more.
But the one we’ve chosen as the winner is:
So congratulations to @WalesPPA, AKA Jac Bond, soon to be the happy owner of a slick, swish, shiny prize, the envy of all his acquaintances. (OK, OK, it’s a book on mnemonics. But we think it’s very cool.)
So, what would you have done, smartypants?
Before we opened the challenge to the public, both Emphasis CEO Rob Ashton and I had a go ourselves. Feel free to use the comments section below to put us through the mill, as we surely deserve.
@emphasiswriting Most writing experts say extra detail means extra work for the reader. Browning was right: less is more. #EmphasisTest
@EmphasisWriting The more unnecessary detail you put in a piece, the harder it is to read. To quote Browning, ‘Less is more.’ #EmphasisTest