How to Write Concisely and Clearly: 4 Lessons From Jeff Bezos

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Bezos Blueprint" by Carmine Gallo. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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When is it better to use words of Anglo-Saxon origin rather than words of Latin or Greek origin? How should you use qualifiers? What’s parallel structure?

Simplicity is the most important communication principle that Carmine Gallo discusses in The Bezos Blueprint. Simplicity is clarity: If you want your audience to understand and act on your message, keep it simple.

Keep reading to learn how to write concisely and clearly so that you get your message across effectively.

How to Write Concisely and Clearly

When it comes to advice on how to write concisely and clearly, Gallo offers a number of tips he derived from studying Bezos’s letters. As we discuss these tips, we’ll illustrate each with a famous Bezos quotation that shows the principle in action.

Tip #1: Use Short Sentences and Simple Vocabulary

Gallo advises that you use short sentences and simple words most of the time. Gallo argues that, the more complex, important, or stressful the subject matter, the more important it is to write plainly. He specifically recommends choosing words of Anglo-Saxon origin rather than those of Latin or Greek origin—for example, a Latinate word might facilitate your efforts to sound smart, but an Anglo-Saxon word will help your audience understand you. Note how plain Bezos’s language is even while connecting Amazon’s mission to its stock value: “In short, what’s good for customers is good for shareholders.”

(Shortform note: In The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White give similar advice but clarify that good word choice isn’t just about choosing shorter, blunter words—it’s about developing a good ear for language so that you can tell which word is best for the situation. Above all, they recommend being precise but not pretentious. For instance, if we rewrote the above line as, “To summarize, that which accrues values to customers is likewise beneficial to shareholders,” we’d show off our vocabulary at the cost of clarity, reading comprehension, and overall impact.)

Tip #2: Write Actively

Gallo also recommends writing actively whenever possible. Begin sentences with clear subjects and vivid verbs—this keeps the “action” moving and keeps your audience engaged. For example, even when constructing more complex sentences, Bezos tends to start with a clear action: “We love to be pioneers, it’s in the DNA of the company, and it’s a good thing, too, because we’ll need that pioneering spirit to succeed.”

(Shortform note: In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell says you can strengthen your verb choices by choosing single words over complex (and less direct) phrases. For example, instead of saying that an initiative “proved to be ineffective,” simply say it “failed.” Similarly, Strunk and White advise choosing verbs that are precise enough not to require adverbs. For instance, instead of saying that someone “read the document closely,” say that they “scrutinized the document.” To illustrate the importance of good verb choice, imagine how much less clear the above Bezos quotation would be if we replaced “love” with a more complex and less precise verb phrase such as, “We have shown a strong affinity for being pioneers”.)

Likewise, favor active voice over passive voice. In active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb, as in this simple Bezos statement: “Customers love Prime.” In passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb, as in this rewritten version: “Prime is loved by customers.” Active voice is generally clearer, more concise, and more assertive.

(Shortform note: Note that in addition to being wordier and less natural sounding, the passive voice version also shifts your attention from “customers” to “Prime” as the main topic of the sentence. Most of the time, you’ll want to stick to active voice to keep the emphasis on the actor (as Bezos does with “customers,” who, as we’ll see, are typically the core of his message). But in a few cases, passive voice is the clearer option. For example, if the recipient of the action is your main topic and the actor is comparatively unimportant, a passive construction might serve best: “The Internet was created in the 1980s, and by the 2000s, it had changed the world.”)

Tip #3: Avoid Qualifiers and Hedge Words

Gallo points out that an easy way to keep sentences shorter and more direct is to avoid qualifiers and hedge words—they add fluff and feel indecisive. By contrast, Bezos wasn’t afraid to be concise to the point of bluntness in the slogan, “Get big fast.”

Use Qualifiers Carefully

Gallo is correct that qualifiers often function as filler. For example, the above Bezos quotation gains nothing (and loses all its power) if we rewrite it as, “In general, it’s often a good idea to get fairly big relatively fast.”

However, qualifiers are appropriate when you need to be precise about the scope of your claims. Consider the following statements:

• “Many business leaders are poor communicators.”
• “Some business leaders are poor communicators.”
• “Business leaders are poor communicators.”

In these examples, the qualifiers “many” and “some” aren’t fluff nor are they indecisive. They determine the meaning of the sentences, and without them, we’re left with an unjustifiably sweeping claim.

To prune your writing while retaining accuracy, find each qualifier, then ask yourself whether the sentence would mean the same thing without it. If so, cut it. If not, keep it. In our rewrite of, “Get big fast,” none of the extra words add clarity or change the meaning—they only pad out Bezos’s original, streamlined statement, so they should be cut.

Tip #4: Pay Attention to Sentence Structure

Finally, though he favors shorter, simpler sentences, Gallo notes that effective writers vary sentence length and structure. Readers and listeners tune you out if every sentence has the same rhythm. Gallo notes that Bezos frequently varies his sentence length, as in this passage with sentence lengths of 11, 3, 12, and 17 words: “Along the way, we’ve created $1.6 trillion of wealth for shareowners. Who are they? Your Chair is one, and my Amazon shares have made me wealthy. But more than 7/8ths of the shares, representing $1.4 trillion of wealth creation, is owned by others.”

(Shortform note: In addition to varying sentence length, as Gallo discusses, note how Bezos also alters the flow of his sentences using devices such as introductory phrases, embedded clauses, and rhetorical questions. These choices make the passage more engaging than if every sentence used an identical structure. Similarly, in On Writing Well, William Zinsser recommends that you also vary your paragraph length to keep your audience interested and control the pace of the piece. Long paragraphs give you room to explore detailed ideas but can fatigue audiences. Short paragraphs convey urgency or simplicity but can feel choppy. As with sentences, an artful variety is best.)

When writing longer, more complex sentences, keep them simple and reader-friendly by using parallel structure—that is, by using the same grammatical form to express multiple ideas. For example, when Bezos wrote, “The keys to success are patience, persistence, and obsessive attention to detail,” he made each item in the list grammatically consistent. Contrast that with this rewrite, which loses its clarity and impact by changing the grammatical form for each list item: “The keys to success are patience, to be persistent, and obsessively attending to detail.”

(Shortform note: Parallel structure isn’t just a matter of stylistic preference—language science suggests that parallel structure reduces the work your audience has to do to understand your words and makes it easier for them to grasp complex ideas. Researchers believe that’s because the human brain is built to look for parallel structures when processing language. In fact, studies have found that you more easily understand a sentence when it’s structurally similar to the preceding sentence—or when clauses within it are structurally similar to each other, as with Bezos’s example above.)

How to Write Concisely and Clearly: 4 Lessons From Jeff Bezos

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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