Frequent Questions: Terse or concise?

Frequent questions—not the usual FAQ, Frequently Asked Questions? Okay, let’s start my new Q&A series right there.

Q: What is a “frequently asked question”?

A: Redundant.

Questions are always asked—that’s what makes them questions. So I’m calling this series Frequent Questions. Next?

Q: You often talk about concise writing. Being a Southerner, I was practically born telling a story and “concise” often feels more like “terse” to me—unfriendly and cold. What’s the difference?

A: Great question. For an example of “terse,” see my answer to the question above: one word. I could easily have combined that one word with the information in the following sentence:

Questions are always asked: That’s what makes them questions. So the term “frequently asked questions” is redundant.

Same information, but with a much less snarky feeling. Concise, not terse.

Read concise writing here

The best explanation of concise writing I’ve ever read came from Peggy Noonan’s classic, What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era. Whatever you think of her politics, the lady is a damn fine writer. And not a bad teacher, either. Peggy Noonan offers some great writing lessons, one of which answers a frequent question I get

Here’s your lesson in concise writing—so vivid and memorable that I’ve been repeating it almost verbatim since I read the book 26 years ago:

Remember the waterfront shack with the sign FRESH FISH SOLD HERE. Of course it’s fresh, we’re on the ocean. Of course it’s for sale, we’re not giving it away. Of course it’s here, otherwise the sign would be someplace else. The final sign: FISH.

I called my one-word answer above “terse,” but this one-word sign is concise. Can you guess why?

Signs only need to inform, they don’t need to create a bond between reader and writer. Answers to frequent questions should inform as well, but in a way that helps you see the authentic me. A one-word answer says “Go away. I’m having a bad day.” A fuller, yet still concise answer, invites you to begin a dialogue with me.

Have a question you’d like me to answer? Comment below.


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Also published on Medium.

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