Concise and Effective Writing

One thing that is a huge time-waster for a lot of professionals is having to rewrite memos and other documents. A lot of the rewriting is due to the documents not being concise (and, therefore, not clear). And a lot is from the documents not being effective (tried to get a message across that got buried or was muddled).

Because of the amount of writing and rewriting that I've had to over the years, I can write concisely and effectively. I am pleased to able to share with you some of what I've learned.

  1. Before you write a thing, think through who your readers are going to be and what their backgrounds are. What do they really know about the subject matter you are writing about? Do they all have about equal knowledge, or is do some of them perhaps need some background information? If background is needed, you should set up a separate paragraph that provides the background and give it a heading of Background. Readers who don't need background info can skip over this paragraph (or paragraphs).
  2. Think about what the purpose of your document is. You need to start you letter with a statement of purpose. Sometimes you will need to be explicit in stating the purpose, such as "The purpose of this letter is to describe options available for construction of a new chip-making facility." Sometimes you can state the purpose implicitly, such as "This letter responds to your letter of January 2001, regarding Dr. Dolittle's malpractice suit." The purpose statement not only helps your reader understand the purpose, but it also helps you understand. All too often, memos are poorly written because not even thought was given to what the real purpose of the memo was to be.
  3. Write out bullets of points you want to make, and then group them. This is a form of outlining, but it's a lot easier to do than what you were taught in school (and it works better). As you put these points together, visualize yourself as the reader(s) and think about what they want and need to hear from you. It's too easy for us to write what we want to hear, without giving ample thought to our readers.
  4. Unless you are under an extremely tight deadline, set the list of bullets aside and revisit them a couple of hours or a day later. You may be amazed at the new bullets you add onto the list as well as the ones you take off.
  5. Similarly, after you've drafted the memo or letter or whatever, set it aside and review it later. No matter how good you thought you did with it, treat it as a draft. And read it in the eyes of your readers. If your vice president of finance is one of the readers, pretend you are him/her as you read it. Think about what questions he/she might have and make sure you have answered them.
  6. Use simple words. For example, use is easier on the mind than utilize. And cut out unnecessary words. For example, in order to can almost always be shorted to to. Similarly, we are in the process of doing this ... can generally be shortened to we are doing this ...

These are the key points to writing concisely and effectively. But the key way to getting to the point that you do it consistently is, of course, practice. If this is an area you really need to work hard on, I suggest you write a lot of fake memos and then edit them a few days later to see how you can improve them.

Note that the above points are as important for a short letter as they are for an important proposal. If you use bad writing skills in short memos, the memos will not be as effective as they can be. And, by promulgating bad habits, it will be much more difficult for you to write that important proposal effectively.

Note that the Daily Writing Tips blog has several good writing tips.


Help me continue to improve this site by giving me your feedback. My email is brucekeener at

2001 - 2008 Bruce Keener






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