Why the Length of a Woman’s Skirt Matters

by Rose Benz Ericson, Ericson Business Communications

When I was in journalism school, we students always posed the same question upon receiving a writing assignment: How long should the piece be? One professor – whose sauciness seemed charming back then – put it memorably:

“The right length for a story is also the right length for a woman’s skirt: Long enough to cover the subject and short enough to be interesting.” (I learned later that he apparently was paraphrasing Lord Arthur James Balfour, a Scottish statesman and philosopher of the early 20th century.)

In my work today helping bloggers, business professionals and other communicators write effectively and generate desired results, I find that the sweet spot remains as elusive as ever.

The evidence is clear: Many writers, wishing to appear authoritative, include far too much information. Ideas pour out in a stream of consciousness while the writer loops back haphazardly to earlier points. Punctuation – designed to help organize ideas and allow the reader to absorb key points methodically – is missing or misused. No clear conclusion or request for action is presented, leaving the reader wondering how or if to respond. Is it any wonder that such communications rarely trigger optimal results? 

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal decries the proliferation of long-winded, disorganized writing in business. Some blame university curricula and English departments that favor flowery prose over direct, pointed writing. Others say that an emphasis in business schools on analytic methods crowds out an ability to explain clearly what all that data means.

Workplaces offer few if any systems to correct the bad habits acquired in school. A manufacturing company once hired me to assist a rising sales professional for whom English was a second language. My analysis of his writing found that his difficulties had little to do with his European roots; instead, he had picked up the poor writing habits of his American-born colleagues.

And, while texting and Tweeting do force brevity, their proliferation has exacerbated another problem – an inability to write in complete sentences or to understand when the situation requires more formality.

Worried that your writing weaknesses are limiting your effectiveness in business? Try disciplining yourself with the following:

  1. For every communication, even – or especially – emails, start with a “headline” of 10 words or fewer, including a subject and a verb. If you can’t whittle down your key idea to 10 words, how can you expect others to grasp it, much less buy in?
  2. If writing the headline seems difficult, set aside your pen or keyboard and speak the 10-word headline out loud until it sounds right.
  3. Use your headline as part or all of the subject line for your email. You might be amazed to find that recipients are more likely to read it, remember it and find it later when the subject line accurately reflects the topic.
  4. Resist the urge to add to the email any material that doesn’t belong under the headline. You’ll be writing more emails someday, correct? If you have another idea, start another email – with a new headline.
  5. Use periods – lots of them! (Commas, semicolons and dashes do not count as periods.) If you want your readers to absorb your ideas effectively, you must give them well-placed breaks to think about what you’ve written.

Try this: Look at something you’ve written recently, and notice how many of your sentences exceed 20 words. Sentences that ramble on are frequently misunderstood – or ignored altogether. To increase the odds that your readers will read and grasp your key ideas, practice using periods to break up those sentences of 20-plus words.

Above all, don’t overestimate your audience’s desire, time or patience for your musings. If you want readers to value and respond to your writing, get to the point quickly. And make sure it’s a good one. 

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{ 4 comments }

Fritz Huffnagel February 21, 2012 at 6:33 pm

These are wise words. They would fit right in with those I learned from Stephen Wilburs, PhD my writing professor from years ago.

Linda February 22, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Quite a wonderful article. We certainly need to keep growing outside of the classroom experience as we our daily communication demands In this day and age, you really focused on the two areas that seem to be communication hazards. The collision of the two worlds of sound bite versus longer more complete communication. Your proposed solutions are succinct enough to really put into action quickly while being thorough enough to cover more complex writing. I will be using these ideas as I work on refining my written communication. Thank you!

Dave B February 22, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Good stuff! As I read it I kept thinking “Guilty”, “Guilty”, especially adding info to an email that has nothing to do with its heading.

I’m looking forward to your next blog post. Any advice on apostrophes?

Rebecca February 23, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Rose shares clear guidlines for effective emails.

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