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  • April 11, 2013

Overwriting Less

I am an overwriter.

I could stop this post right here, but you wouldn’t believe me.

There is relief and guilt to overwriting—like you’ve just finished off a large bag of potato chips by yourself. You find comfort in there being no more chips to eat but also discomfort, because, well, you just ate an entire bag of chips. Decorative Illustration

Or, you’ve just written countless words to a client team explaining the intricacies of a deliverable. You exhale and cross the to-do off your list, but you secretly doubt whether the post overcomplicated the work or confused your client.

I haven’t always written exhaustively. Remember the good ol’ days of the five-paragraph essay? I got so used to writing five-paragraph essays that when I entered the dawn of mandatory word counts, I tried every trick to make my writing appear longer: double-spacing paragraphs, increasing the font size to 12.5 points, widening the margins, and even exercising my early design eye to choose a font with wider or larger letterforms.

Eventually, I was able to expand my arguments to work up to higher word and page counts. Writing became about thoroughness—creating a bulletproof presentation of points built step by step for the reader.

The thing is, I haven’t been able to turn off the faucet since.

My Basecamp Reality Check

In the world of Basecamp, I often need to describe in writing design mock-ups, UI components, and/or the logic supporting a system. Our written correspondence with clients can be simple and straightforward: We uploaded the work here. We addressed your feedback X, Y, Z. This is our agenda for the kickoff meeting. Other times, what I’m trying to communicate may warrant more explanation, e.g. We recommend delivering static wireframes instead of HTML wireframes for the following reasons, etc.

Drafting Basecamp messages involves achieving the right balance between writing enough to explain the necessary points but not so much that the reader can’t possibly absorb all the details (or doesn’t even try to). To help achieve this balance, I’ve come up with three self-directives to cure my overwriting habits, and for you to do the same:

  1. Write how you speak.
    When you write like you’re talking straight to the reader, you’ll write more honestly and in a tone that your audience will understand. Embrace conjunctions, and leave awkward transitional phrases behind.
  2. Embed hierarchy.
    Breaking up your writing into multiple paragraphs and using more headings will make your message easier to scan and digest.
  3. Edit down to the essence.
    Empathize with your audience by being selective with your points and getting straight to them. Less can be more if you include just the right amount of detail.

Start a Conversation

In admitting I overwrite, I have finally acknowledged that: A) Not everyone who is willing to read what I write is willing to read everything I have to say, and B) Overwriting doesn’t necessarily eliminate the possibility of there being follow-up questions.

I’m realizing that, unlike the five-paragraph essay, my Basecamp posts should not always be delivered wrapped up tightly with a bow or sealed in clamshell packaging. They should not over-explain, and they should not be a one-sided presentation. It’s better for me—and better for my readers—if I write less and anticipate having a conversation. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” Shakespeare wrote.

We may not be able to increase the terribly-small type size of bullet points in Basecamp, but we can surely make our points easier to read. Overwriters or not, we can more readily anticipate, prompt, and embrace conversation. What are some of the ways that help you do so?

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