Concise Writing Takes Time

31 August 2012

The present letter is a very long one, simply

because I had no leisure to make it shorter.

Blaise Pascal, 17th century French philosopher

In a post a few years ago, I referred to Pascal’s quote above and gave some tips on how to write concisely.


Recently I read where the American author, Mark Twain, was given credit for the same quote. And while trying to find out if Twain had actually written it, I discovered yet another attribution – to 20th century American poet, T.S. Eliot.


I found that the attribution to Mark Twain was a mistake, but I haven’t found anything else about the Eliot attribution.


But no matter – Pascal wrote it first, and many have re-quoted it, because it’s worth quoting. So let’s take another look at concise writing.


Concise writing – long time

Concise equals short. Therefore, if you write short letters or reports, it shouldn’t take much time, right?


Short answer: no. It’s not intuitive, but writing concisely takes far more time than you might realize.


Be considerate

Pascal was considerate of his readers. What he said was essentially an apology: I’m sorry that you have to take so much time to read this letter; I just haven’t had time to go back and tighten up the writing.


If other 17th century writing is anything to go on, you'd have to wonder why Pascal was worried about the length of his letter. Most novels written during that time were very l-o-n-g. Of course, those who could read and who had the time to do so (ie, the very wealthy) undoubtedly enjoyed having those long novels to fill their idle hours. By contrast, the poor in those days had little, if any, leisure time.


Business people today are ‘time poor’. They spend 12-16 hours at work, and many are tethered to work after office hours by computers and mobile devices. They simply don’t have time to read long emails or reports.


Your goal as a business writer should be to reduce the time that readers need to spend on what you’ve written.


Learn from Pascal

So take a lesson from Pascal, and make sure that the emails and documents you write will make a positive difference in the lives of customers and colleagues.


Be considerate and take the time to revise what you write.

·      Organize the document so that it’s easy to follow.

·      Cut out irrelevant or unnecessary details.

·      Clearly state the action the reader needs to take.

·      Add titles or subtitles to make it easy to find information.

·      Use boldface, italics, numbers or bullets to emphasize important points.


Go here to read my earlier post about Pascal and concise writing.



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