How to reduce the word count in policy documents

Policy documents don’t need to be long. Remember, there’s no reward for writing long, complex policies. Instead, look for ways to reduce the word count and make the document more useful to its readers.

How to reduce the word count in policy documents

You can do this by adopting plain language writing techniques and blending these into your policy development process. Here’s some examples:

Use positive language

Instead of using negatives, i.e. you shall not do the following, revise the text and write it from a positive angle.

This serves two purposes: it helps the reader understand the subject matter faster and the tone of the document is also more appealing. No one wants to read a list of rules you cannot obey.

Positive language writing will reduce the word count almost instantly.

Choose short words

Novice policy writers tend to use big words when little ones will do. You don’t have to impress your readers. Instead focus on giving them the most accurate information as quickly as possible. One way to do this is use common, everyday words.

For example, avoid words such as:

  • Procure, locate, development, qualifications, articulate, anomaly…

And use shorter words, for instance:

  • Get, find, event, skills, clarify, error…

The same applies to phrases.

Remove filler and redundant phrases from your policy documents.

  • Instead of saying, ‘in the event of’, write ‘if’.
  • Instead of saying, ‘at the end of the day’, write ‘ultimately’.

And then purge all cliches, such as:

  • Pre-history
  • Low hanging fruit
  • Each and every…

And errors such as ’very unique’ and ‘partly fatal.’

Write in the active voice

Don’t say, ‘the policy shall be completed by…,’ when you could write, ‘You shall complete the policy by…’

  • The active voice tells you who did what.
  • The passive voice tells you want was done and by whom.

Even writing about the passive voice seems to take longer.

FYI: use the passive voice if you want to deflect any possible criticism or blame on the user. For example, ‘the computer may crash if the wrong data is entered.’

While this is longer than, ‘If you enter wrong data, the computer crashes,’ it deflects any blame from the user’s actions.

Next, look for ways to reduce the word count even further.

For example:

  • Distill long summaries into short, one sentence introductions.
  • Compress long paragraphs into shorter sentences.
  • Delete duplicate entries.
  • Remove filler text.
  • Check for repetitions and sections that make the same point twice.
  • Avoid ambiguous text. Check long passages and make sure that the subject and object are close together.

One final test of your policy document is to read it aloud. This old trick is perfect for catching errors in the text and making sure it reads correctly.


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