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Improve Your Writing With Word Limits

Improve Your Writing With Word Limits

    Here’s a scenario that might sound familiar: you are listening to a speech or presentation, or perhaps you are reading an article, an essay, or a report, and it becomes clear that the writer is using words without communicating.  Some essays, articles, and books might be pleasant to read because the language is colorful, and a speaker might make pleasant, sincere-sounding noises.  No doubt some of your my writing or speaking can be described this way.  If you don’t think yours can, just wait.  As you improve, you will expect more of yourself.  One way to improve is to practice writing with word or character limits.

    This matters in the idea-driven economy.  Consider George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.”  Words mean something.  Words are important.  Orwell argues that language should be “an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”  Much could be accomplished with better writing, and yet quantitative social scientists, for example, try to earn status by one-upping one another with technical and mathematical sophistication.  Humanists try to out-jargon one another.  Important ideas are obscured by the impenetrable clouds of unclarity.

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    What can you do about it?  Try writing with hard word limits.  Give yourself a lower word limit than you might find comfortable.  Allow yourself to write a rough draft that is as long as you want it to be.  Then, when you’re editing, try to cut it down below the maximum word count.  If you’re writing a 10,000 word article, try to cut it to 9,000 words.  If you’re writing an 800-word op-ed, aim for 700 words.  Trim an essay with a 1500 word limit to 1200 words.

    There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, your readers’ time is valuable.  Second, it forces you to confront trade offs in every sentence.  If you’re trying to trim a 1500 word essay into a 1200 word essay, you have to ask yourself at every juncture whether you can make the point with fewer words.  You will be shocked at how much you can tighten your prose without losing anything.  Indeed, tighter, punchier prose will improve the quality of your exposition.

    An exercise might help.  Consider that last sentence: “Indeed, tighter, punchier prose will improve the quality of your exposition.”  I wrote it on a plane from Omaha to Memphis while my brain was toast, and it shows.

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    Let’s improve it.  First, drop “Indeed” because it adds nothing.  “(I)mprove the quality of your exposition” is a long way of saying “make you write better.”  So let’s try some revisions:

    “Tighter, punchier prose improves your writing.” (better)

    “Tighter, punchier prose makes you write better.” (awkward and clunky—it sounds like a lesson plan for the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Who Want to Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too)

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    Perhaps this: “Punchy prose makes good writing.”

    There’s no objective right answer.  You have to play around with it, but as the cliché says, easy writing makes for hard reading.

    You might also want to experiment with character and syllable limits. Orwell said to avoid using big words.  In the sentence we were critiquing above, “exposition” was a clunky, four-syllable way of saying “writing.”  Always use the easier word.

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    To write well requires dedicated effort.  I don’t claim to have mastered it.  Approach it like topiary.  Or bonsai gardening.  Or sculpture.  Or painting.  Or whatever.  As a writer, you are a skilled artisan.  Words are your medium, and you use hem to communicate information, evoke passions, and stir the consciences of your readers.  Get to work.  Change the world.  And take heart: you’re always improving.

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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