Non-fiction writers carry a purpose and agenda. They will make you aware of their experiences, and their interpretation of them. They want to persuade you of a particular viewpoint. They will show you how to live your life.
But in the world of 60 second Tik Tok videos and Twitter’s 280 character limit, consumers are accustomed to getting their information as quickly and concisely as possible. A study by Microsoft Corp indicates that our attention spans are at an all-time low; we lose focus after just 8 seconds.
To retain thir audience’s attention while fulfilling their aims, modern-day writers have to get creative. They need to say as much as they can, in as few words as possible.
Unfortunately, there’s a negative stigma around overusing short sentences. They break up the flow. They’re boring. They fail to show how points interrelate. But when used correctly, they can effectively communicate your point in as few words as possible. Varying sentence lengths keeps readers on their toes. Short sentences emphasize an idea and grab readers’ attention.
If you want to strike the balance between overusing short-sentences and communicating your ideas concisely, then adopt the following rules.
“With few words, one can speak the truth.” — Bryan Adams
20th-century writer George Orwell was an English novelist and critic. With his lucid prose, his work is often characterized as being short and accessible. Living through two world wars, he predominantly wrote pieces that opposed totalitarianism and supported democratic socialism.
To present these complex ideas in an accessible way, Orwell often used simple analogies and metaphors. To give an example, Animal Farm (1945), uses animals as an analogy of the rise and fall of the soviet state.
Following the Second World War, Orwell published “Politics and the English Language” (1946). Following an era of mass propaganda, the essay displays his aphorisms on truth and language — more importantly, how deliberately misleading language can be used to conceal facts.
He acknowledges that most-day written English is full of bad habits that spread lies and imitation. To overcome this, and to present complex ideas as concisely as possible, Orwell states we should:
- Never use a long word, where a short one will do.
- If it’s possible to cut a word out and retain your core message, cut it.
- Never use passive language where you can use active.
- Never use jargon or a foreign word when you can communicate the same information with an everyday English equivalent,
- Break any of these rules when following them would leave you saying something barbarous.
These rules might require us to write in ways that are “unfashionable” and different from the norms we see day to day. But, in the words of Orwell:
“These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article.”
Using short-sentences can require us to cut out a lot of content.
A lot of marketers present a false dichotomy: use fewer words or present the message you intended to. This dichotomy implies that you can’t do both. Truncated sentences offer a middle ground. They help you write in as few words as possible, without losing your underlying message.
The definition of Truncate is to: “Shorten (something) by cutting off the top or the end.” And truncated sentences do just that. To illustrate, let’s talk through an example. Consider the sentence “I like reading more than Jon likes reading books.”
- To shorten that sentence, you might say “I like reading books.” But that sentence carries a completely different meaning. Just because you like reading more than Jon, doesn’t mean you like it. Jon could hate reading after all.
- To truncate that sentence, you might say “I like reading more than Jon.” It cuts off the unnecessary ending but retains the original meaning in fewer words.
To successfully truncate your sentences, trim the ends of your content; and then assess whether the sentence makes sense and whether any valuable information has been lost.
They are used for a variety of reasons, but predominantly to:
- Create tension, haste, or urgency.
- Reinforce what’s been said and make an impact.
- Or clarify a longer description.
On the whole, truncated sentences are an effective way to communicate and add emphasis to parts of your article in fewer words.
Act as if each word costs you $100
According to Business Professor Chris Haroun, when cutting words from our articles we should imagine that each word left in costs us $100.
Doing so highlights the importance and weight that each word has. Where we can, we should look to make the biggest impact, with the lowest cost to the reader. And the fewer the words, the lesser the cost — because readers won’t have to invest as much of their time.
Ernest Hemingway has been praised as one of the greatest fiction writers of all time, and he owes it all to his economical and concise writing style.
Throughout his lifetime, he wrote numerous letters to fellow articles on how to write better. These are all compiled in ‘Ernest Hemingway on Writing’ (1999).
Within these works, he urges writers to write positively, rather than negatively. Not only does it introduce unnecessary words, but negative language can be harder to follow and understand — which will inevitably break up the flow of your article.
To achieve this, Grammarly writer Karen Hertzberg has offered several simple ways to spin a negative into a positive:
1. Present solutions instead of problems.
Instead of “I can’t meet you tomorrow,” offer a resolution in fewer words: “Tomorrow afternoon works better.”
2. State what you want, rather than what you do not.
Instead of preventing a negative outcome, promote a positive one. “Remember to do your homework,” instead of “Don’t forget to do your homework.”
3. Avoid negative hyperboles.
Positively exaggerated words are often successfully used for praise, or to promote something. But when used in a negative context, hyperboles can evoke bad feelings and alienate your audience. Having emotionally charged content is great, but if it leaves your readers angry or frustrated; they might not read on.
To achieve this, instead of saying things like “you always file your reports late,” opt for less extreme assertions: “I sometimes receive your reports late.”
On the whole, Hertzberg’s pointers highlight that remaining positive will enable you to connect and present your message in fewer words.
Amidst all these tips and advice, I’ll leave you with this final thought.
A lot of you will read what I’ve presented today and think you can achieve this short, economical and powerful writing style using a Hemingway Editor. A lot of writers copy their article in, and the editor spots and splits long sentences into shorter ones.
Doing that would be a mistake because not every sentence should be short.
Having too many broken up, disjointed and short sentences will kill the flow, rhythm, and readability of your article. Your work will become so stop/start, that it will become difficult and tiring to read — which will inevitably deter readers.
Instead of relying on algorithmic editors to make the decision for you, make the call yourself. Read your article aloud and assess for yourself which sentences you can shorten without breaking the article flow.
This editing process is subjective and dependent on your typical style. Do what intuitively sounds and feels right. Just remember to keep things short, simple, and to the point.
“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
― Jack Kerouac