Thrifty in Words

Thrifty in Words
Wendy Thomas - Thu Jan 28, 2010 @ 01:39AM
Comments: 9

I write newspaper and magazine articles about thrift and being frugal. With the tribe of kids that I have it’s a niche into which I naturally fell.

It seems I have been practicing thrift on one level or another my entire life. When I became a parent I quickly discovered that saying (yelling) “Come over here now” was far more effective than “Please step away from that cake on the table because I know that you are tempted to touch it and I would rather not have the cake that will be used in your father’s birthday party destroyed.” Conservative in words

Sometimes too much information is simply too much leaving you with nothing but a diluted message.

When I was a technical writer, thrift of words was a huge emphasis. When one had to be concerned about how much space a file consumed, you were encouraged to write concisely, cleanly, and use those bulleted lists as much as possible.

As an early instructor of Technical Writing, I had to explain to my students why in computer documentation there was no indenting of paragraphs, why you had to create a stem sentence for a list to avoid repeating words, and why the use of adjectives was greatly discouraged (this is Tech Writing people, not Creative Writing). I had to try and undo what years of public education had ingrained in them and not because it was necessarily grammatically correct but because it was financially (to the computer companies anyway) correct. Most of the students understood this and excelled in the field.  Some, however, never did get the concept and they were the ones who went on to become non-technical writers.

Because of this industry training what we got was a few decades of some of the world’s most technically accurate yet boring writing. It did the job. It described the systems, the components, the procedures. And it put everyone to sleep.

These days brevity is used in documentation but for an entirely different reason. As writers we are no longer concerned with computer file space but instead are now concerned with the all important available brain space. If a page is “too dense” with text, if the paragraphs are too long, if a list is not used when it clearly could be used, and if we don’t break up the information with space-consuming eye-catching graphics, we lose our audience.

And a lost audience means that no one gets to the punch line. For a writer, this is the kiss of death.

When I am given a magazine assignment such as write a 1500 word feature article with an information box, I rejoice. I know my limit. I know how much depth into which I can go. I know how much breathing space I have with the topic as I inform and educate my audience. My goal is to teach, inspire, and delight.

When I see an assignment like write a 9-12 page solution paper. I cringe. Putting a page count on a technical paper is akin to issuing the groan inducing grade school assignment, of “write a 500 word essay on what you did during summer vacation”.

Instead of getting quality, reflective work, you instead got essays in which absolutely no contractions were used and in which rambling thoughts ran rampant. (“I would really, really like to say that that boy is genuinely the genetic male offspring of his maternal relative” instead of “He’s his mother’s son”). The goal of 500 words was met but all quality was lost.

Outstanding marketing writing (and you know it when you see it) requires a balance-act marriage between journalism and technical writing. You need to know how to creatively hook and then engage your audience while being as thrifty with your words, as say a mom-with-6-kids’ grocery budget.

Forget the arbitrary, fee structured constraints. Instead, go for quality over quantity. Quickly, efficiently, and with skill get to your point. Make me want to read you until the end. And when I do get to the end, for goodness sake make sure you cut out and leave before I have a chance to put you aside when the inevitable “something shinier” catches my attention


Comments: 9


1. Jason Ball  |  my website   |   Tue Feb 02, 2010 @ 06:26AM

I agree with pretty much everything you say Wendy but I'd add a couple of comments.

Context is key. Writing for someone at the beginning of the sales process is different than those who are in the final consideration stage before a sale. So while extreme brevity may be the right approach when someone is just browsing, greater detail, depth and more explicit direction can be more appropriate at decision time.

I worry that sometimes, in the drive to write frugally, we can lose confidence in our abilities to seduce our readers. To keep their attention until the end of a piece. As you say it's about quality over quantity – but quality is not always about the fewest number of words (or even characters). Quality still comes from marrying skill with words with extreme empathy for our readers.

Thanks for your post.

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