‘Must go, CU!’ Does ‘telegraphic’ writing really save time?

Friederike Tegge | March 19, 2024

A small Lego man figurine sitting at a desk looking frustrated.

Telegraphic writing can be frustrating for the reader. Image by Kirill_makes_pics / Pixabay licence

Does your writing look like this?

Team, FYI, still to do:

This writing style is sometimes called ‘telegraphese’. It mimics the language that people used in telegrams sent via telegraph, where every word cost money. A more modern equivalent would be the language used in text messages.

Telegraphese focuses on the essential words with the most meaning — usually things, names, places, and actions. For example, Orville Wright announced the first successful aeroplane flight in history in a telegram in 1903, starting with these words: ‘Success four flights thursday morning’.

Telegraphese cuts out words that carry little meaning like a, the, of, and. It often uses abbreviations and symbols — as in Q&A and copy/paste. It also often leaves out standard punctuation. And it might drop some letters too and intentionally misspell words.

Text message with many abbreviations and numbers used instead of words.

Text messages are often short and can be hard to understand. Image by Miss Puzzle / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Telegraphese doesn’t save time

When you write emails to colleagues or internal documents like minutes or updates, it’s tempting to use telegraphese because it appears to save time for you and for your readers.

After all, you are using the fewest words and letters possible. The problem: a telegraphic writing style can lead to misunderstandings. And misunderstandings can lead to phone calls and emails from your readers, who are trying to clarify what you meant.

Even worse, your readers might misunderstand the message but think that they got it right. And then they take the wrong actions.

The short tone of telegraphese can also undermine relationships: a colleague or client might think that you are rude and don’t value them enough to write full sentences.

Let’s look at these problems in more detail.

Telegraphese creates complications for you and your readers

One problem with telegraphese: to us, the writers, our ideas are absolutely clear. They’re our ideas after all. Because they are so obvious to us, we also often think that they come across clearly in our writing, even in abbreviated form. But that’s not always the case.

The following sentence surely made sense to the person who wrote it — but does it make sense to you?

If problems seen clear cache.

The same is true for the words and symbols we use. We often assume that we, the writers, share a common understanding of abbreviations and symbols with our readers.

Have you ever received a text message with bad news that ended with ‘LOL’? Did the sender really ‘Laugh Out Loud’? Or did they send ‘Lots of Love’ in support? And what does this sentence mean: ‘Please eat banana/apple.’ Can you eat a banana or an apple — or both?

Confusion grows as time goes by

Have you ever created a new password on the spot and you thought: ‘Wow, that’s such an awesome password! There is no way I will forget it. I don’t even have to write it down’? And then, a week later, you could no longer remember it?

Memory fades — not just for passwords. Many internal documents, including emails, are used for record-keeping. This means that someone might read them (much) later to understand a decision or situation in the past.

That reader might have forgotten the original context. And without context, sentences written in telegraphese will be truly difficult to decipher.

Internal documents might also be read by people from outside your team or organisation. For example, internal government documents might be used by journalists and other interested parties.

These ‘outside readers’ often lack essential knowledge that could help them interpret the text. These readers benefit from clear, explicit writing without shortcuts.

You risk sounding rude

Another problem with telegraphese: it often comes across as rude. Readers might think that you don’t value them enough to write complete words and sentences. And its tone often seems abrupt and overly task-oriented. It can leave the impression that you forgot you are communicating with a human — not a machine.

Overall, your readers might think that you couldn’t be bothered to explain things clearly. Apparently you expect them to put in the extra effort to decipher your cryptic messages.

Your intent might be different — but impressions matter.

Not just the tone, but the meaning of your writing can also change drastically when you take out the little words. Imagine a company that wants to advertise its time-saving services. It wants to tell the world: ‘We work so you don’t have to.’ But then they select a punchy two-liner instead, deleting little words like ‘so’: ‘We work! You don’t!’

Does that two-liner still have the intended message? Or is it now a somewhat insulting comparison?

Telegraphese has its place — but not in business writing

In many contexts clipped messages are appropriate, for example in news headlines or text messages.

Here, we shorten our language because we have limited space available or have fast written interactions. News headlines attract your attention and then explain more in the article below them. In text messages, writer and reader often know each other well. And the communication isn’t ‘high stakes’. Misunderstandings aren’t too risky — or we can meet in person and clarify.

In business writing, we often don’t know our audience intimately. We don’t know what knowledge and language we share. We often discuss complex topics. And the resulting misunderstandings can cause problems that might not be easy to fix.

In business writing, we don’t want our audience to guess what we mean — and come to the wrong conclusions. So, telegraphese usually isn’t a good writing style at work.

Our solution: Be clear and be human

Civil servant and plain language advocate Ernest Gowers explained good writing like this: ‘Be short, be clear, be human.’ Yes, keeping it short is a virtue. But being clear and sounding human is just as important.

A young man looks at his tablet with a smile.

Readers appreciate clear, human writing. Image by StartupStockPhotos / Pixabay licence

So here are our tips for writers.

Yes, you can (and should) be concise! Just don’t be confusing or cold. That is plain language in a nutshell!

Want more tips?

If you want to learn more about plain language and a good tone, check out these Write blogs:
Tone tips: A collection to bookmark

Writing instructions: how much detail do you need?

And these workshops can help you write well in business and technical contexts:
Business Writing Essentials

Technical Writing

Writing Instructions and Procedures

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