Cut to the chase (How to be brief part 1)

How do you tell if your writing hits that sweet spot between giving enough information, and too much? No one likes being overloaded with information, or needing to wade through a swamp’s worth of detail.  It’s easy to spot ‘too much information’ in other people’s content.  But to test your own writing, these questions will help.

1. What do you want to achieve?

First, define your purpose.  Be specific.  For example,  ‘give up-to-date information on the migration patterns of the African sparrow’ will be much more useful for refining your writing than ‘raise awareness of birds.’

Second, hold each piece of information up against this purpose.  Does that information fit this purpose? There are two aspects to this question:

What information is relevant?

Looking at our African Sparrow example, a chart showing the location of the birds at different times of the year is in.  A description of the Society for the Protection of Animal’s role in caring for sick sparrows is out.  ‘Just in case’ publishing is rife on the internet.  Content goes up just in case someone, somewhere might need it.  The effect of this is to bury the gems of useful content in acres of padding.

What’s the right level of detail?

How much information is needed to meet your purpose? Do your readers want a detailed explanation, or a quick answer?  On the internet, 95% of the time, a staged approach will work best.  You don’t need to tell people everything all at once.  Instead, give people the message in a nutshell, then, if they want more detail, offer links to the full story deeper within your site.

2.  What information can you leave out?

 What knowledge do your readers bring with them?

When I’m working on a new writing project, I’ll often ask what the audience already knows.  In content for technical experts, scientific terms may be used without much explanation.  If you’re emailing colleagues to update them on a project you’ve all worked on, you can assume they’ll have the history already.

What can you expect readers to work out themselves?

You can trim your content dramatically by leaving some information implied. We do this every day without realising it. Imagine that you’re browsing a website about your favourite 80s band, and you see a tab saying ‘fans.’  You know that this information is for devotees like yourself because of the other cues from the website.

Now imagine you’re on Harvey Norman’s website, and you see a tab that says ‘fans.’ Because of the context you’re reading the text in – electrical goods – Harvey Norman don’t need to spell it out with a label like ‘Fans (that are electrical appliances for the purposes of cooling an area).’  Their audience already gets it.

What can they find somewhere else?

You don’t need to be the Encyclopaedia Britannica of your topic.  Information may be useful, but that doesn’t mean you need to be the one that provides it. Government and peak body websites are a serial offender here, with whole websites-worth of duplicated content.

A better way is to build relationships with users by being the go-to-source.  Collate the best information from other sites, as well as your own insights, and make it easy to find.

On twitter, for example, a hash tag is a short-hand way of drawing in a whole world of information – and attitudes.  You can see this in hashtags like #obamacare, #nowthatchersdead….

3. Now cut!

You’ll now have two stacks of information.  One stack is the essential information: what absolutely has to be included for your project to succeed.  Everything that’s left over is deadwood.

Be brutally honest.  Trim words, paragraphs – even whole pages. The result will be content that grabs your readers’ attention, and holds it.

Your thoughts?

What’s the biggest challenge for you when you want to pare back your writing? Feel free to get in touch if you’ve got more questions.

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