How to write shorter responses

Ben on the XP thread wrote something which made me smile. I hadn’t seen it before – a Google search attributes it to various people but I suspect it originates with Mark Twain (Update: Apparently Blaise Pascal said it first, but in French):

“I apologize for the length of this response, but I just don’t have time to write a short one.”

Whoever came up with that gem, I applaud them. Writing a short, pithy response is far harder and takes longer than splurging everything onto a page. This is how I go about writing shorter responses:

  1. I write down all the ideas which the post, email etc. gives me.
  2. I work out which of the ideas are relevant to the conversation. I delete the others.
  3. I work out which bits of text duplicate ideas, and I delete or reword until each piece of text explains one or more unique ideas clearly.
  4. I look at how much text each idea in my post takes up. If the idea isn’t actually worth spending that much text on, I delete the text.
  5. I think about how many people are going to read the post. If the remaining ideas aren’t worth their time, I delete the post.
  6. I try to get to the previous stage as quickly and ruthlessly as possible. It’s like being a pirate on the seas of your own intellect, which isn’t so bad.

Many of my deleted posts are helpful for me to write anyway as they help me think through my thoughts. I don’t always write shorter responses, even when I should.

I have no idea whether this is a short enough post or not, but if you got this far I must be doing something right.

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9 Responses to How to write shorter responses

  1. anonymous says:

    I’m just not ruthless enough!


  2. anonymous says:

    Of course, he said it in French.

  3. anonymous says:

    “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir
    de la faire plus courte.”

    I have only made this letter rather long
    because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

    Blaise Pascal. Lettres Provinciales, 16, Dec.14,1656.

  4. sirenian says:

    Thanks for that, have updated. 🙂

  5. yatimk says:

    Eliminating duplication is frequently good, but sometimes humans need duplication to get the point. We aren’t like computers. When writing software for a computer, it’s best to get rid of any duplication. When writing a reference manual, you want to get rid of most duplication and replace it with cross references). The more conversational the communcation, however, the more duplication there will be.

    Often, I find it effective if an author repeats only the most important things, and in a variety of ways. Those are the things that make an impression on me, the things I remember later.

    Also, a writer can get rid of an awful lot of “length” by punching up his style. That is, use short, direct sentences in the active voice. Avoid passive voice or needless helping words, especially weak verbs with nouns that describe actions. Never say, “The display of video is facilitated by the insertion of a renderer into the graph.” Rather, say, “The code inserts a renderer into the graph to display the video.” The latter is only a few words shorter, but it reads much more quickly. If I have a weak verb in a sentence, that’s a literature smell telling me I need to refactor.


  6. sirenian says:

    Yes; I find the active voice very much more helpful than the passive. I didn’t write down every single technique I use because it would have made for quite a long post, which might have lessened its effectiveness somewhat!

    Thanks for writing about this. While I’m familiar with the technique I haven’t found clear words to describe it. I might just steal yours next time I need them.

    As for duplication for emphasis, I agree that sometimes it’s appropriate, but only when a response really doesn’t need to be shorter. The shortest responses I write tend to be on things like the Yahoo XP group, which gets way too much traffic as it is. I can’t imagine anyone there bothering with a page-long post by someone of unknown standing (ie: not Ron Jeffries, Alistair Cockburn, etc), no matter how beautifully the main topics are emphasized.

  7. yatimk says:

    Yes, Liz, that makes sense. Although I myself will skip over even a short post by Ron Jeffries, Alistair Cockburn, Kent Beck, etc. if I find it boring or on a subject that’s already been hacked to death.

    You’re welcome to imitate me anytime you want to. I’m flattered. 🙂

    The best book I’ve read on writing is Patricia O’Connor’s Words Fail me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know about Writing. This is not a book about mechanics, like punctuation and grammar; it’s a book about arranging your thoughts, improving your style, and getting more impact from your writing.


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