Editing down for clarity

While reading Kim Scott’s Radical Candor recently, I was struck by this (on page 93 of my paperback revised edition):

The next time you spend 2 hours helping somebody edit an email until it’s just two sentences, don’t feel you are wasting your time. You are getting to the essence of the idea, which allows the recipient to absorb it quickly and easily.

It reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago when I was writing an academic paper, and grumbling to a colleague that I was now going through the arduous process of cutting it down to fit the required word count. “Oh that’s the bit I like best,” he said, “It really forces me to think about what I’m trying to say.”

I’ve thought about that conversation many times since then. These days I often find myself trying to reduce a lengthy email to two or three sentences, or adding a crystal-clear summary at the top of something with lengthy detail. I find myself having written an awful lot of detail—context, reasoning, a carefully-worded conclusion—and then thinking “But Susan’s really busy; she’s not going to want to read all of this. What is it she really needs to know?” It takes time (as Blaise Pascal noted) from me, but it gets results quicker. Comparing a two-sentence email with one that scrolls off the screen, it’s not just a matter of the recipient spending an extra 3 minutes to read it—they most likely will put off reading it, maybe for some time. If the whole email fits into a single glance things move much quicker.

This is not just true for emails, but for almost all writing in the workplace. It’s all about respecting the reader and their time.

And, as both Kim Scott and my colleague said, it’s about pinpointing the essence of the idea. It forces us to be really clear with ourselves about what we’re saying, and it becomes easier with practise. Everybody benefits.

Photo by Arne Hendriks