Are longer lists better? — Frequent Questions

Q: Are longer lists are better than short ones?
A: [steam coming out of ears] I. Hate. Lists.

longer listsElmore Leonard said writers should always “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

If only we could identify those parts in advance, eh?

Well, some of them we can.

Like lists.

I hate lists.

They’re just plain lazy. And did someone say boring? Oh, you bet.

Bullet-pointed lists are meant to impress the reader, I suppose. Ooh—look at all the things! But to me bullet-pointing lists is like going to a networking event and throwing a big stack of business cards at a table full of strangers.

Would you ever be impressed by that? Ooh—hasn’t she been busy collecting cards!

Reader, I’m going to answer this one for you, because I know you’re not idiots. You would not be impressed by that. Not ever. Not only is it unhelpful—just like lists—it’s also downright rude. So don’t give your reader a bunch of things—tell them what’s special about each one.

Lists disguised as sentences at least show a bit more effort on the writer’s part. But they still lump everything together in an undifferentiated mass. If something is important enough for you to mention, it’s important enough for you to tell me why you’re mentioning it.

Longer lists are not better than short

If you insist on making a list, keep it short. And use what writers call The Rule of Three:

Wikipedia very appropriately offers three reasons this rule works. And they’re not presented as a list, either, so 10 points for Wikipedia:

The reader or audience of this form of text is…more likely to remember the information conveyed. This is because having three entities combines both brevity and rhythm with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern.[2][3] It makes the author or speaker appear knowledgeable while being both simple and catchy.

I added the emphasis there. Now let me translate it into a more readable form: Your list will be more memorable, being shorter. Three is the fastest pattern you can create, and patterns are always more memorable. Plus, you seem smart—while being memorable.

I’d add a fourth use for the Rule of Three, because establishing and quickly breaking a pattern is not only memorable, it can also be damn funny. Breaking the pattern with the third item in the list gets a laugh because the listener recognizes the pattern with the second item and before they even realize they’ve recognized the pattern, you go and break it. For instance, you might imagine a flight attendant going through the airplane asking:

“Would you like coffee, tea, or Xanax?”

I didn’t expect that. Funny!

Breaking the pattern on the fourth or fifth item will only get you a confused stare.

“Would you like coffee, tea, soda, juice, or Xanax?”

What?

The list that ate my headline

Back in the day, I sometimes wrote press releases for a—well, let’s be nice here—an extraordinarily picky client. For a press release about a famous artist, I wrote a headline that mentioned three of this person’s most iconic works. The client added a fourth. And a fifth. Still not enough variety. Pretty soon the headline was a laundry list—one of the longer lists you’ll ever encounter. (Pro Tip: Headlines are not supposed to take up half the page.)

“I don’t like the headline,” the client whined. “It’s too clunky.”

[headdesk]

“That’s because you keep adding things to it,” I said. “Keep it to three things and it’ll be snappier”—and I named the artist’s three most iconic pieces.

I don’t remember how many pieces we ended up listing in the final headline, but I think only one of my suggestions made the cut. When the media wrote about the release, though, guess how many pieces they cited? Yes, three. Because journalists know what they’re doing. They also know an iconic image when they see it; all three were the pieces I’d suggested to begin with.

Don’t mess with the rule of three, folks. It’s smart, efficient, and journalist-approved. Tempted to publish longer lists? Don’t say Elmore Leonard and I didn’t warn you.


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How do I know what to cut — Frequent Questions

Q: How do I know what writing to cut?
A: Start with the boring parts.

Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite writers. He’s famous for his novels, of course, but I’ve never read a word of them. No, I’m an Elmore Leonard fan because of his advice about writing. Particularly this gem:

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

He continues:

“Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”

Of course he’s talking about fiction: that’s his wheelhouse. But the advice applies to nonfiction as well. And especially to business writing.

Elmore Leonard knows what to cut

cut wellNow, a business speaker is unlikely to break into an extended discussion of the weather in mid-speech, but she may go off on a tangent. Something occurs to her in the moment and because it interests her she assumes it will interest her audience. Trust your preparation (one reason it pays to rehearse) and dance with the speech that brung ya. You don’t want to be accused of “perpetrating hooptedoodle,” do you? Cut the ad libs.

When you’re reading, do you enjoy encountering long paragraphs of dense prose? They’re hard to get through, aren’t they? Well, they’re even harder for audiences listening to a speech. So break it up. Figure out the main idea you want to leave your audience with and concentrate on that. Would you rather have them grasp one concept thoroughly than hear five and forget them all? Cut the extraneous stuff; focus on what’s essential.

And no lists! If you’re tempted to include a list, think about it. Hard. And then cut it. Yes, completely.

But I have to list my clients, you may be thinking. That’s my social proof!

Well, what’s important about the clients you’ve worked for? Instead of listing company names, tell stories about the work you’ve done for one or two clients.

Just as readers don’t skip dialogue, listeners don’t skip stories. Especially stories that resonate with them. Stories that move them to laughter or to tears are my favorites. But if you can interrupt their thought processes even for a moment, get them to think about old concepts in new ways, that’s a win.

Whether you’re writing a speech or an article, after you’ve got the first draft down, go through it from the audience’s point of view. Is there anything confusing? Anything that doesn’t directly enhance the reader’s or listener’s understanding of your main idea? Hooptedoodle. Cut it.

And thank Elmore Leonard for helping your business writing to shine.


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The 10 Writing Commandments of Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard, writer
Elmore Leonard – Flickr, Creative Commons license

Writing about editing the other day, I was fishing around for that great Elmore Leonard quote—you know:

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

And I discovered it’s part of an entire article he wrote about writing in The New York Times. It’s his 10 Commandments of writing, and—spoiler alert—he calls this the “most important rule.” And so it is.

But many of the others are well worth your attention—even if you don’t write highly stylized mystery novels.

“1. Never open a book with weather.”

Now, most of my people don’t write books. But this rule works as well for speakers and writers of nonfiction as it does for novelists.

“If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.”

Yes, even in a business context “the reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for”—if not people, then at least story. Some human connection. Give it to them as quickly as possible. In fact, start with it, weather be damned.

“2. Avoid prologues.”

Leonard warns against prologues because:

“They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.”

Many speeches contain prologues—the endless lists of people to thank, throat-clearing about insignificant stuff: “Thanks for coming out in this rain, folks.” (See rule #1.) Get to the point.

Watch yourself some TED Talks. No prologue there. The speaker dives right into the story, and you’re riveted. Don’t you want your audience to be riveted too? Do that: dive in.

“5. Keep your exclamation points under control.”

“You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”

Especially in business writing, there’s really no place for that level of excitement.

But my favorite piece of advice—seriously, I love this so much I may have to embroider it on a pillow:

“10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Right? But how do you know what part that is?

Well, what parts do you skip? For me, it’s lists. Sometimes writers try to disguise a list as a paragraph. Lazy, lazy writing. If it’s so important for me to know about each of these things, then tell me why. Don’t just list a bunch of brands, for instance, and expect me to be impressed. What did you do for each of those brands? How did you leave their companies different than you found them?

Of course, Leonard is thinking about fiction:

“Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”

“I’ll bet you don’t skip the dialogue.”

Business writers don’t often deal with dialogue. But we do tell stories. Or we should. You don’t skip the stories. You pay attention—always—when there’s an emotional connection between you and the material. So do that. Always.

And if it sounds like writing, rewrite.


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Criticism & editing

“I could never be a writer,” my friend said at dinner last night. Why? “I couldn’t stand the criticism.”

We’d been talking about editing, so that surprised me. I’d just quoted Hemingway’s line about everyone’s first drafts being shit.

Once you recognize that everyone writes crap, how can there be any shame in editing?

editing is not the same as criticismStill, people hate the very thought of editing. So they do one of two things: they avoid writing, like my friend; or they publish crap. I couldn’t survive at either of those extremes. So I write. And I edit.

We’re more than two-thirds of the way through my 12-week writing class. And I still haven’t talked about editing. It’s coming—not this week, maybe the next. If I think editing is so important how could I leave it so late in the course? Because I wanted to get my people writing.

I wanted to give them the space to write without being self-conscious about whether they’re doing it “right.” So they take their weekly writing prompts and run with them, or they write on their own projects. And they feel more confident every day. They’re starting to believe me when I say that they have all the tools they need to “find their voice” or write for a business audience or incorporate humor into their work. That “writing” is not something other than what they’ve been doing their whole lives—and that they can refine what they’ve been doing instinctively to make it even better.

I’ve taught them to start everything with the same sentence–simple, but true: “I am a good writer.”

And they are, amazing and creative. It’s a joy to watch them come into their own.

Is editing criticism?

That’s not to say I haven’t made suggestions. They’re not paying me to be a cheerleader. And a good thing; I have terrible pom-pom technique. I’ve even offered to edit one piece for each of them, so they can see what I would suggest.

But I hope they don’t think of editing as criticism. Certainly not the first edit—when you’re editing yourself. I think of it as pruning (and that’s an analogy my friend would understand—I wish I’d thought of it last night). Or sculpting, which, as Michelangelo explained was merely chipping away at the marble until everything that wasn’t the statue was gone. Sometimes our ideas get encrusted in words and they need us to free them. As Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Some writers may dread the editing process. I don’t, perhaps because I don’t think of it as “editing.” I think of it as the second (or third, or…) stage in writing.

Everyone does it. There’s no need for criticism, or shame.


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