Need Concise Business Writing? Consult Your Suitcase

“How can I write concisely?”  This is one of the top questions people ask me about business letters and business writing.  In one of my recent business writing workshops, a participant shared an analogy that provides a good answer.

Lee Casher told us about a rule her daughter learned when packing for a trip overseas.  Lee’s daughter was traveling with a group to Israel, where she would have to carry her own luggage. In the instructions for packing, group members were told the following, “Pack your suitcase with the things you think you will need.  Then unpack the suitcase and remove 1/3 of the items from the suitcase.  At that point, you’ll have just the right amount.  People always pack more than they need.”

This rule holds true for business writing.  When we first put down our thoughts, we use extra words and even extra sentences—because we are still formulating what we want to say.  If we go back and review what we’ve written from the reader’s perspective, we can easily remove 1/3 of what we’ve written, making the writing more concise and more focused. 

Believe it or not, I’ve tested this rule over a long period of time, with many writers.  Years ago, I read a book called Revising Prose by Richard Lanham.  Lanham maintains that almost all writing has a 30% “lard factor” that he can easily revise out.  This seemed like a challenge to me, so I gave it a try.  I found I can routinely reduce my own word count by 30%.  I can often cut an even higher percentage in other people’s writing.

The suitcase rule works.  One nice feature is that this process allows you to “dump” your thoughts or make a quick and sloppy first draft of a business letter or e-mail.  Professional writers know it’s more efficient to write a quick first draft and then revise it than to try to write concisely the first time, before you are even sure exactly what you want to say.

Try the suitcase rule with your next e-mail or letter—pack, unpack, and discard one third.  It really works!

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