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Learn to write tightly by writing in a smaller space

A woman's hands, typing on a Bluetooth keyboard

Writing tightly is a skill all writers should have, whether they’re writing for print or online. That skill is especially relevant to anyone writing for the web. And I’m not saying that because I believe that the attention span of readers is rapidly shrinking.

Being able to write tightly means you can get your point across faster. It means that you can express your ideas fully, yet succinctly. It means that you can write to a shorter word count.

I know, from experience and from teaching and mentoring other writers, that learning to write tightly can be difficult. Recently, however, a colleague of mine introduced me to a useful technique that can help you learn to write tightly. I’d like to share that technique with you.

The idea behind the technique

This technique comes from world of technical writing, specifically writing documentation that people read on mobile devices. It’s also used in discipline related to technical writing called UX writing. UX writing involves preparing help that appears within a desktop or web application — for example, a short explanatory sentence within a field or in an application’s window.

When writing for mobile or doing UX writing, you need to convey information concisely. Within the application, you don’t have the space to write a full page of text or even a lengthy paragraph. You’re limited to a handful of words or a short sentence at the most. So, you need to be able to use as few words as possible. Your choice of words becomes very important.

Start with a text box

Why a text box and not a table? The cells in a table expand to fit the text as you type, which isn’t what we want.

To get going, fire up a word processor like LibreOffice Writer or Microsoft Word or Google Docs. Next, create a new document and draw a small text box within that document. If you’re wondering how to draw a text box, here are some links to instructions for:

Here’s an example of a text box in a LibreOffice Writer document.

A text box in a LibreOffice Writer document

The size of the box will depend on your needs. If you’re going to be writing for mobile devices you can, for example, draw a text box that’s the same shape and size as a small smartphone’s screen. If, on the other hand, you just want to learn to condense your writing, start off with a text box that’s 8 centimetres by 8 centimetres (around 3 inches by 3 inches).

Then, start writing in the box. Don’t expect to write, say, a complete article or blog post or book chapter. Instead, try writing a couple of sentences or a short paragraph or two.

When you start working with this technique, you’ll run out of space before you reach end of whatever it is you’re trying to write. Don’t worry about it — that’s to be expected. Don’t let it get you down. As I mentioned earlier, writing tightly takes practice and that’s what this technique is all about. Remember that I know a number of experienced writers who struggled with writing tightly. You’re in good company!

The key is thinking about the words you use

Look at what you wrote, then think about the words and the sentences and, where necessary, the paragraphs. Then, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can I use different, shorter words to convey the same ideas?
  • Can I cut the length of the sentences, even just by a word or two?
  • Can I make the paragraphs shorter by splitting them up?

If you’re a technical writer or someone doing UX writing, think about using sentence fragments instead of full sentences. Just make sure those fragments sound natural and too technical or packed with jargon.

Practice, practice, practice

You won’t get the hang of using this technique immediately. Learning to write tightly can take weeks, even months.

While this technique can help you learn faster, you’ll still need to practice. To do that, set aside 10 or 20 minutes each day to focus on writing tightly.

As you improve, make the text boxes you’re working with smaller. Tighten the space to tighten your writing. Do that until you can’t tighten your writing any further.

As you master this technique, or at least become more comfortable with it, put it into use with real-world documents and with online help or embedded user assistance.

Learning to write tightly takes a lot of work, but it’s a skill worth the time and effort to learn.

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