Word Limits – Part 3: Why brevity is your friend
In ‘Part 2: Why stating your intentions is not enough’, we looked at how to make sure you fully answer a question and give enough information for assessors to effectively score your response.
In this post, we’re going to look at the opposite side of that coin: how to help the assessor see the wood for the trees and not get trapped in a bog of superfluous wordery.
K.I.S.S (Keep it Simple, er, Sweetie)
Regardless of whether you have generous word limits (or none at all) or restrictive word limits on questions that require a lot of information, it’s easy to say a lot without really saying anything. And while it’s vital to answer all parts of a question fully, it’s equally important to avoid devolving into an unintelligible stream-of-consciousness type essay.
A tried and tested way of doing this is to empty your company’s collective brain into a source document or folder. Get all the information that’s relevant to that answer in one place, including facts, figures, ideas, options, examples, case studies, policies, processes, etc. Use this document or folder as a source from which you can then cherry pick pieces of information to build your draft response.
If you’re an adrenaline junkie, by all means draft your answer directly into the final response document or online portal. What could possibly go wrong?
If you’d rather play it a little safer, I would suggest writing your answers out using Word or other software, on a separate, draft document, and include the question at the top. This allows you to:
a) Keep the question in mind while writing and avoid unnecessary tangents
b) Easily check word/character counts
c) Make sure you’re happy with your finished text before you copy it into the ‘live’ document
d) Reduce the risk of accidentally submitting a half-finished answer
Even if you haven’t been given word limits, it’s a good idea to try to stick to some self-imposed limits.
Stay on topic
Herding your company’s collective wisdom on a subject into one place will often mean that you have far more information than you need and it can be difficult at that point to whittle it down to ‘crucial information’ and ‘useful, associated but not totally vital information’. It’s tempting to want to put everything into your answer and show off your vast knowledge of your subject; why wouldn’t you?
Headline topics are a great way to combat this and to begin to structure your answer. Read through the question and identify any and all distinct topics within the question that you can then use as subjects in your draft. For instance, using our previous example question, you could identify the following topics:
Please detail your experience of delivering similar services to similar organisations. Explain how you will use this experience to ensure the successful delivery of this contract.
- Delivery of similar services
- Delivery to similar organisations
- How our experience relates to this contract
- Our approach to delivery for this contract
Under those headlines, start to write up your response using the relevant information from your source document/folder. At this point, it doesn’t really matter if it’s a bit repetitive, you just need to get all of your information separated out into those topics.
Quick tip: As well as helping you focus and organise and shape your answer, headlines/headers can also be extremely useful in guiding the assessor through your answer in a logical way, so you may want to leave some of them in your final draft.
You will now have a horrendously messy, baffling and terrible looking draft answer, probably well over your stated word limit. With luck, you will be so appalled by this draft that you will look forward to – and get a vicious thrill out of – brutally dismembering it and disposing of its various flaws.
How to cut it down to size
Edit your answer at least a couple of times:
- Take out any repetition – say it once, but say it well – don’t over explain
- Restructure sentences to cover a number of linked aspects in fewer words
- Use bullet points, where appropriate, leading in with a short sentence or heading
- Use plain English – it’s often a lot less wordy!
- Read the question again: Are you answering more than the question asks for? If it’s not relevant to that particular question, take it out
- Take out superfluous words that don’t add to the meaning. For example, replace ‘In order to’ with ‘To’ or ‘As a company, we’ with ‘We’
- Make a cuppa; Go for a walk; Answer some emails: Do something else
- Re-read, re-edit
- Let someone else look it over – do you have a literal minded pedant very detail oriented person in your company? Do they think it answers the question? If not, why not?
Once you have your draft response ready, it’s time for yet another read-through. Hopefully you will have taken a break from it at some point, as advised above, to avoid ‘word blindness’ and enlisted other people if possible to point out any areas that are not completely relevant, clear and understandable.
A spelling and grammar check is always a good idea at this point. If you’re not great at spelling, let your word processing software take the strain – the odd typo won’t cost you points in most cases – but do check the spelling of your company name, key personnel, your products and services and, of course, the name of the buying organisation you’re bidding to.
Last but not least – check the word count one more time. If you are working to a character count instead of word count, make sure any punctuation that may be represented by lengthy special HTML character codes is accounted for.
If you are copying and pasting your final response into a text box within an online portal, skip down to the end of the box once it’s in just to make sure it all got copied over.
Has this series been helpful?
If you haven’t already, pop over to ‘Part 1: Understanding word limits’ or ‘Part 2: why stating your intentions is not enough’ and let me know what you think.
If you have any questions, thoughts or horror stories about writing to word limits and finding the right balance between too much or too little information in your tender responses, do let me know in the comments.