There is something to be said for writing that is concise and to the point, but I have learned that brevity isn’t always better. Sometimes, being specific or adding additional details can provide more understanding of the subject matter and create the full picture for the reader. On the other hand, including too many details can overwhelm the reader and the information will not be retained.
Finding that balance is key. Yet how do you know which approach to take?
I’ve always had difficulty deciding whether to be brief or to elaborate. However, over the years, I have collected several tips and tricks that have helped me get the biggest impact out of my writing without comprising meaning.
In this post, I’ll share these tips and tricks with you. We’ll take a look at different writing formats, context, constraints, how personal is too personal, and getting feedback. This will help you decide whether to be brief or elaborate when writing, depending on your individual needs.
In modern writing, some of the most common writing formats are emails, journals, essays, letters, speeches, and books. Often, the writing format can provide guidance as to how much information should be included. Let’s take a deeper look into these writing formats.
Emails are a necessary way of communication. They are also very easy to use and are accessible to many, and because of this convenience factor, our inboxes have become flooded with messages. Managing emails could be a whole day project. However, the large quantity of messages in your inbox gives you the opportunity to see what sticks out to you.
Here are some questions to consider when thinking about how you like to receive information in emails:
Which emails allow you to retain what you read, and which are worded in a way that makes them hard to remember?
How do you feel when you receive a short email versus receiving a long one? If it is long, do you read the message in its entirety or do you scan for the main points?
How many times do you need to reread a message before replying?
Now, think about the emails that you send. Here are some questions to consider:
What is the typical length of an email that you send?
What is the structure of the message?
Answering these questions will help you dictate the way you construct your emails. In general, shorter, simple emails tend to be retained and can more clearly transmit the information needed. However, longer emails do have their purposes.
For example, a longer email might make sense if it is an announcement or serves the need to document something that took place. Similarly, longer emails might be needed if they’re about a new policy or procedure, a synopsis of an idea, or the reasoning behind something. Keep in mind that an email should not require the recipient to scroll down. If it does, consider tightening the language or creating links to embed within the email that can provide additional information.
Scholarly journals are used to summarize research, a case study, or work that was done in a specific field. In this format, explaining the work in depth will provide the reader with an understanding as to why the work is important.
The writing style for journals is expository, where facts and research are presented. Diagrams, tables, or other visual representations of what is being argued can give more insight and can be used for comparing and contrasting.
However, as I mentioned, journals are used to summarize; they are not the complete, comprehensive study on the topic. Only the findings or main points should be emphasized. Creating an outline of what these main points are and sticking to explaining them, showing evidence to substantiate the claims will define which information is carefully included.
Essays, letters, and speeches are usually between one page to a few pages in length. As an essay is an analysis or interpretation of a particular subject, they are typically focused, shorter, pieces of writing that need to answer a question or provide reasoning.
Letters were once the only way people could communicate with each other, and in a world of technology, the idea of communication is being reinvented with letters making a comeback. Now, letters are used to say thank you, to congratulate or commend, to express a concern, or to connect with a loved one, as well as for other reasons. When used formally, letters are brief and descriptive.
Speeches as a public address to an audience are written depending on how long it takes the presenter to say the speech. Usually, there is an amount of time that is allotted and that will dictate the length of a speech. The writing style can be persuasive and/or narrative depending on whether the speech is meant to push people to take an action or if a story is being told.
Speeches have more impact on the audience when they are anecdotal and inject humor—if that is acceptable for the nature of the topic—to maintain the audience’s attention.
Out of the writing formats that I have already mentioned, books give the most freedom to the writer in terms of what can be included and what does not need to be. That space can allow a writer to be creative and really play with different techniques and imagery depending on the topic, the writer’s background, if it is nonfiction or fiction, the genre, and so much more.
The consideration here, is how detailed a passage or chapter is and whether the text gives the reader the picture you were hoping for or there is something missing. Are you detailed in some parts of the story and not in others? Is that ambiguity intentional? When a reader is engulfed in a good book, you are taking them on a journey, and you want them to be engaged the entire time—hence the expression, “You can’t put a good book down.”
With Twitter introducing 140 characters maximum for a tweet, word constraints have become more popular in pop culture as well as on applications, for contests, or writing submissions.
Word constraints have both pros and cons. The benefit of word constraints is that they allow you to think about how you are going to get your point across in the most concise way, and give you a framework and parameters to work within. Knowing that you must stay within a certain number of words allows you to really pinpoint how you want to allocate your words, and what is most important to express.
However, the question you are answering or the writing topic might require additional explanation, which the word constraint makes difficult to accomplish.
There are ways around word constraints. These should be explored if you truly feel that there is no other way to fully explain your point, but keep in mind that the maximum word count was given for a reason.
Using Twitter as the example, you can send another 140-character tweet after the first one. For a writing submission or application, such as for work, school, or grants, you can include the additional words and provide the reasoning for that in a comment section. If there is a character box that will not allow you to do this, you can continue in another part of the submittal.
As long as you stay relatively close to the maximum words allowed, the reviewer will usually accept the submission.
In some cases, the guidelines will specifically state to not go over the maximum words allotted, or your submission will not be reviewed. In that scenario, you will need to review again and decide where you can cut words or rewrite a phrase to use fewer words and carry the same meaning which is truly an art.
When something is personal to us, it is only natural to want to capture every aspect. I find myself wanting to write more if the topic is related to injustice or misinformation or if I was personally involved.
Writing is an outlet for many, and that’s what makes it so great. Putting pen to paper can be cathartic and help get emotion out that is living inside of us. However, there is a time and place for everything.
I have found that what helps me in these instances is to first write out everything that I want to say. Then, I give myself time to marinate on what I wrote and revisit it sometime later. That can be later that day or the next day. Afterward, I revise the document and think about how much emotion or which intimate details are appropriate to share with the audience.
It is always good practice to have someone else read what you have written. Peer feedback can be from friends, coworkers or can be commissioned. It’s up to you to decide who you would like to review your work.
Having someone who can objectively read your writing will provide the best feedback, and you can ask follow-up questions that will help you go back and make revisions.
The writing format, as well as the prominent writing style, can help a writer to decide on whether elaborating is necessary or not. By evaluating the format and style and considering how personal the topic is to you, determining if a piece should be short and sweet or expanded upon will become easier.
Take the time to have someone else read what you have written and ask them questions. We write so that readers will read, understand, and feel connected to what we have written. If we have not succeeded in that goal, then we must edit, revise, and try again.
Jennifer Manghisi is a senior strategy, business improvement and transformation professional currently working at Columbia University in New York City. She is originally from Long Island, NY. She received a Bachelor of Science from Bentley University in Business Management and a Master of Science from Columbia University in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. Writing is one of her passions and she enjoys freelance blogging and writing projects. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.