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20 ways to cut your words and help to save the planet

“Clutter is the disease of… writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon” (William Zinsser)

Writers and writing coaches like to rail against flabby writing. But what if this verbal clutter wasn’t just getting in the way of us writing with clarity and style – what if it was also draining the vital resources of the planet?

Think about this.

  • Paper makes up about a third of business waste
  • The average office worker uses 10,000 sheets of paper a year (sounds like an under-estimate to me)
  • It takes about 17 Watt-hours (Wh) of electricity to make a sheet of paper from wood. Using recycled paper is only part of the answer: it still takes 12 Wh to make 100% recycled paper
  • It costs more to make paper than to generate electricity – so the cost of five sheets of paper is about the cost of running four 80 W bulbs for an hour
  • Poor business writing wastes the time and energy of the people who have to read it. (Some clever people estimated the economic cost to be a £10bn drain on the UK economy).

Paper is a key resource for business. But the focus tends to be on purchasing recycled paper, recycling the paper you’ve used, and using paper more wisely – things like printing on both sides of the sheet.

I’ve yet to see much written about going one back the supply chain: reducing the number of words that we’re putting on the paper in the first place.

Reducing waste makes much better economic sense than recycling it. Reducing the waste from your words is also good for your writing, for the people who are reading it – and for your reputation at work.

Ready to do your bit? Here’s a free guide to help you get started.

20 ways to cut your words and help to save the planet

Before you start writing

1. Stop and think: do you need to write at all? Could you call or talk to a colleague instead?

2. Make the time to make it short: it takes time to think, to edit, to sharpen you words – but you’ll save the time of everyone who has to read it

3. Consider your colleagues: they’ll thank you for the time and mental energy you save them

4. Change your state: most of the verbal clutter is to cover our fear of the message. Get clear and confident about what you’re saying – then cut the flab away

5. Set a limit: work out your average word count and cut it in 2. Challenge yourself to write to that limit.

6. Get clear on what you want to say before you start: what is your point again?

When you’re writing

7. Cut the introductions: watch the extra words at the start of your e-mails and reports. “I’m writing to advise you that…” Just get straight to the point.

8. Stop apologising: cut out the words that reduce your impact “a little” “rather”, “sort of”,” kind of”

9. Get active: use the active not the passive voice. (“The boy kicked the ball” not “the ball was kicked by the boy”.) Denman reckons you can lose 1 page from a 4 page report just by rewriting it with active words.

10. Use short words: think of the saving on ink and paper!

11. Drop the thesaurus: it’ll lead you astray with long and complicated words

12. Don’t be too intense: cut out unnecessary words like “very”, “most”, “really”, totally”

13. Cut out redundant adjectives: “future” plans, “general” consensus, “new” innovation

14. One adjective: why write about a “key and important decision” when just one will do?

15. Watch for business clutter: keep an eagle eye for the meaningless business words that creep into our writing, like “focused” “essential” “crucial” “ongoing” “upcoming”

16. Use plain words: business language uses more paper! Go for “more” not additional, “learn” not ascertain, “try” not endeavour

When you’re done

17. Cut it in half: Zinsser suggests we can reduce most drafts by 50% by cutting out the clutter

18. Edit your work: adopt the eagle eye of an editor before you send it off - and cut some more. If you have to print to edit – make sure you’re using recycled paper – and recycling your discarded words

19. Encourage others: clear crisp writing is a model that others will follow. Encourage your colleagues to cut the waste. Make brevity a value in your workplace.

20. Celebrate: you’ve just cut the waste from your writing, saved your colleagues time and energy, boosted your reputation at work and made a small contribution to the future of the planet.

This post is a contribution to Blog Action Day: a world-wide conversation on the environment. A chance to write, read, listen, connect and learn about ways that we can make a difference.

You can quote me on all the suggestions for reducing your words at work… but the references on resource use come from elsewhere: loss to the economy, wasted paper, cost of paper

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Comments

  1. Troy Worman says:

    Great writing advice. Clearly, fewer words will result in fewer pages, but in order to save trees we need fewer prints. Using IM, blogs, and wikis in lieu of email will result in fewer links, I think.

    But again, great writing advice. I particularly like number one: stop and think.

  2. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Thanks Troy. You know I think we can find ways to create more virtuous circles through our words. Your own writing is a shining example of brevity - and it nearly always has the effect of waking me up, of getting me to stop and think.

    Joanna

  3. Aruni says:

    Nice post! You know I never thought I’d be writing so much and here I am. I try to let something sit overnight before printing anything (or posting) because invariably I can reduce the amount of words. I think not only will this save paper but also save our poor little information overloaded brains! :-)

  4. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Hi Aruni, thanks for stopping by!

    “Leave it overnight” would have been a good addition to the list. (I’m sure there are more but I didn’t want to go on too much!)

    I’m with you on less words being good for our brains - and I could make a case for that being good for our health, our energy, well-being, more time to go outside, walk home, spend time with people we love, consume less rubbish, find time to cancel that catalogue that keeps arriving unwanted…

    All of it can add up to a way of living that works better for all of us.

    Anyway it was good to meet someone else who’s cutting paper (and banishing blogging fears) today. Hope to see you again soon.

    Joanna

  5. Jeanne Dininni says:

    Joanna,

    You’ve presented some great tips for “ecological” writing in this post! I can’t think of anything else to add, so I think I’ll spare my words (for a change) and simply end by saying, “Thanks for a great post!”

    Jeanne

  6. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Thanks Jeanne

    I like the idea of ecological writing - hmmm, might come back to that sometime

    Glad you enjoyed this piece

    Joanna

  7. Managing with Aloha Coaching says:

    The Environment and Managing with Aloha

    Leo Babauta wrote, “When I sat down to write my Blog Action Day post, I tried to figure out what the “environment” has to do with some of the main themes of Zen Habits: simplicity, frugality, health and fitness, happiness.

  8. Bobo Linq says:

    I find it almost impossible to believe that it takes 17 watt hours to make a single sheet of paper. Do you have a source for that figure?

  9. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    This was the source Bobo, hope it checks out

    http://eetd.lbl.gov/paper/ideas/html/index.htmhttp://eetd.lbl.gov/paper/ideas/html/index.htm

    Joanna

  10. mmo says:

    Remember when everyone thought the digital age would do away with paper? As your post shows, it has done the exact opposite! Paper is now used more than ever >_>

    You might also want to explore digital solutions, for example sending memos and such to smart phones and emails.

  11. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    My favourite solution is sticking to the point! Even if we use digital solutions it’s hard not to print the material to read if there’s too much of it.

    Thanks for stopping by

    Joanna

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