Last week I read a great suggestion from the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt: “Be crisp in your delivery.” Keeping this in mind, I’m getting to the point at the beginning of every email and controlling my tendency to over-explain the background.

The whole article, 9 Rules for Emailing from Google Exec Eric Schmidt, is very clear and useful, but Rule No. 2 is the one that’s really stuck with me. (And wouldn’t you know, it’s the one that quotes a writer!)

crisp2. When writing an email, every word matters, and useless prose doesn’t. Be crisp in your delivery. If you are describing a problem, define it clearly. Doing this well requires more time, not less. You have to write a draft then go through it and eliminate any words that aren’t necessary. Think about the late novelist Elmore Leonard’s response to a question about his success as a writer: “I leave out the parts that people skip.” Most emails are full of stuff that people can skip. 

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve consciously thought about frontloading my emails with the important point. Rather than a four-sentence lead-in, I’m being intentional about diving right in to the question I need answered or the solution I’m proposing.

And this tip is not just for emails! Similar to Leonard’s advice, Strunk & White famously suggested, “omit needless words.” Are you cluttering your prose with adverbs instead of strengthening your verbs? Are you bogging down your plot by overdescribing routines such as getting dressed or making dinner?

But the world needs Hemingways and Fitzgeraldsbooks aren’t simply information delivery systems. A memorable story has atmosphere and context, as well as plot; an effective essay illuminates extraordinary dimensions in something ordinary. 

How do you balance brevity and nuance in your own writing?

Have you found writing tips from any unexpected sources? 


4 Responses to Crisp.

  1. Bill says:

    Here’s an unexpected source for you: the US Army.

    Military correspondence is limited to four paragraphs (except in unusual cases).

    Para 1: This is the subject this letter addresses.

    Para 2: This is the situation and/or issue.

    Para 3: This is what we’re going to do about it, or what we need from you.

    Para 4: If you have any questions, here’s the person to contact.

    • sharon says:

      Whoa, that is very interesting, Bill! I bet a consistent structure like that would serve efficiency in a lot of corporate communications, too. Storytelling, on the other hand…not so much.

  2. Hillsy says:

    I must admit, ‘omit unnecessary words’ is probably one of my most hated “tips”. It’s not that it isn’t relevant, or indeed sensible advice – it’s how inexact it is. It infers a precision it can’t deliver, much like many sound bites.

    I mean what, exactly, is an unnecessary word?

    For a start, just subjectively, we all have differing opinions of what’s necessary. I personally love a bit of florid prose (sufficient quality assumed); other’s prefer something starker, sharper.

    Objectively, there are still issues. I mean, take the sentence “Dan walked into the shop”….Ok it’s a bit bland, you could stuff some details into other sentences, or colour it with character POV….but essentially it’s inoffensive and just gives the reader a grounding as to the scene……But what is actually necessary?

    “Walked into” is superfluous – as he didn’t osmose or break-dance, walking is the default setting. Also “Dan” probably isn’t needed – we’ll be mentioning him next sentence. Which leaves us with “The shop”, and if you really want to, you can cut “the” as well…

    “Shop. Dan considered Roquito or Padron Peppers for arrabiatta.” ….and while that’s the necessary amount of words, it reads like a hard-boiled detective novel, not romantic fiction.

    In fact take almost any sentence from any book. I’m reading Old Man’s War…I just opened any page and picked a sentence:
    “It turned out Harry and I had our first evaluation session together”
    Omitting “unnecessary” words ‘could’ give you:
    “Harry’s and my evaluation coincided.” 7 words less. 58.3333% removed!!
    ….While I won’t argue at all that my edit is in anyway better – I have omitted unnecessary words. So why hasn’t John Scalzi? He’s a well respected sci-fi writer and I’m a schmuck……so for the love of god, WHY?

    In “On Writing”, Stephen King shows an example of his edited work, and leaves an adverb in. On a dialogue tag! His argument is pretty thin (IIRC it was to show the speaker was being ironic), but it didn’t offend me. He wanted it, it wasn’t excessive – that’s all the justification King needed. I bet he didn’t give the sentence more than a cursory thought, and only did because he had to actually explain why it didn’t register in his editing mode.

    And this is why the statement in an unqualified form is next to useless. In the end because of the subjectivity, because of variances in style, prose and even intention, because writing isn’t about a shopping list of facts, some words justify their existence by being a supporting structure for other, “necessary”, words. And once you’ve accepted that, how much “unnecessary” depends entirely on the writer’s personal preference (the extremities of stark/purple prose aside). You, the Writer, and me, the Reader, WILL have differing thoughts on necessity of the “supporting structure”. So who’s right? And regardless, it proves that everyone’s mileage may vary. The statement “Omit unnecessary words” infers something highly specific, only to deliver the broadest of generalisations.

    It’s a wonderful irony. By stripping out all the context, the nuance and subtlety, it’s rendered the statement totally irrelevant – almost exactly what would happen if you literally applied the rule to any legible prose.

    • sharon says:

      Great points, Hillsy – it is certainly subjective. And in the case of Strunk and White, their book presents a set of rules to keep in mind. Checks and balances, I guess! And you’re right, the necessary words are in the eye of the beholder, depending on the writer’s preference and then also on the reader’s!

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