Sincerity. Clarity. Brevity. In That Order.
Poor writing takes many forms. Too many people equate “brevity” with “clarity”. One does not equal the other, nor does one require the other. Writing with sincerity is at the heart of the issue, and out of that falls a clear, precise, relevant message.
Every now and then there’s a mention on the value of brevity when it comes to clarity. This is a half-truth. There is a misconception that content can only be clear if its short, or short content is automatically clear.
Let’s be clear (and brief) about this.
“Brevity” and “clarity” are not interchangeable. In fact, there is a distinct hierarchy of importance. On the web, brevity is preferred, if it makes sense in context. But everywhere, clarity is mandatory. And clarity only comes if the writing is sincere. If the message is biased, obfuscated, open-ended or an outright lie, it can be three words long but still be as clear as mud at midnight.
I submit to you Bad PowerPoint. We’ve all seen it. Bullets that say nothing. Language that suffocates the message. Charts that are unfathomably complicated. The actual words are “brief” by definition, but the information is dead on arrival.
This happens on the web as well, down to the smallest line of text. Here’s a great error message I saw the other day, and I really wish I had a screen shot of it:
Press “OK” to Cancel.
Brief, but crap. Corporations, especially those in the technology sector, do a good job of distilling their purpose in life down to a few lines, but the sentences are so snarled in jargon that their meaning becomes almost impenetrable. (My passion for business writing even took up a chapter of my book.) Example:
The Cerner Millennium, person-centric solution framework continues to advance the digitization of individual electronic medical records to meet the needs of care providers, support professionals and healthcare consumers.
There are also plenty of examples of poor writing taken to a malicious end.
Brevity serves clarity. Clarity serves sincerity. Writing honestly — without decoration, hyperbole and fanaticism — means writing for your audience on their terms, not yours.
(Small update: edited this post to be shorter. For clarity.)