Posts Tagged ‘writing style’

Hey writers! In case you don’t feel smug enough today, you might after Weird Al preaches all the grammar rules you already know.

Who cares about saying what you mean as briefly as possible? You do, if you care whether anybody hears you in today’s crazy arcade of voice mails, emails, tweets, text messages, status updates, comments, and forums. Your audience is at least as busy as you. The longer your point takes, the more interruptions hit them.  The more you say, the less they hear.

If you bore us, this is the only way you’ll hold us. (Photo by Sidious Sid)

We once thought the Internet’s limitless space allowed us to write disregarding length. Oops. Today, when even “Too Long; Didn’t Read” has an acronym (TL;DR), concision means more than ever. Pithy is the new deep. Have a hard time fitting your message into 140 characters? Wait until you label the buttons and menus on your web site.

Brevity packs a punch. Per Strunk & White, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words… for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

I’ve taken this message to numerous audiences. Usually, it befuddles workers, who apparently believe adding extra words makes their emails importantier. But sometimes they merely need examples illustrating the point. That’s why I compiled this chart from real-life contributions to a corporate newsletter. It helped my colleagues stop padding their prose with turgid, useless bureaucratese.



 on a weekly basis  weekly
 has completed the development of  has developed
 Interim Report document  Interim Report
 over the course of the coming year  over the coming year
at present

at this time

at this present time

at this point in time

as of now

at this current juncture

for the time being

in this day and age

 at a later date  later
 for the purpose of  for
 as a result of  because
 is working to implement  is implementing
 in the event that  if
 which are of interest to the group  which interest the group
 provided a briefing  briefed
 produced a draft  drafted
 taken into consideration  considered
 was a participant  participated
 ensure the synchronization  synchronize
 includes a proposal  proposes
 issued a statement  stated

Let the Verb Be the Verb

The table above contains one blank line. The examples under it illustrate a problem I’ll call “nouning a verb.” You weaken your prose when you turn the verb into a noun, then add a “helper” verb to replace the real verb. Why say the chairperson “provided a briefing” to the Board? She briefed the Board. The opponents didn’t “outline a proposal,” they proposed. Let the verb be the verb. When you select the right verb, your prose has a stripped-down, muscular quality that busy readers appreciate.

Similarly, question all unnecessary “helper” words. Does it make a useful difference in the reader’s mind if the meeting began “a bit late” instead of “late”? No. If the session was “rather noisy,” just let it be “noisy.”

Nouns First

When you see the word “by,” that’s an indicator that — doh, I’m nouning a verb — that indicates you’ve taken the long path to your point. “By” is fine when you mean “near” (“the office by the mall”). Otherwise, a “by” cameo shows you can save words. Long way around: “This book is loved by parents.” Stronger: “Parents love this book.” Long and weak: “the report that was written by the committee.” Stronger: “the committee’s report.”

Writing short, clear, direct sentences? You rebel!You see this brawny, direct style every day in news articles. I once tried to explain the difference between active voice and passive voice to a social media coordinator who could not fit her sentences into tweets. I plucked a random news magazine off a nearby table and opened blindly to an article. It began, “Rebels took control…” Not “Control was taken by rebels…” Anyone can do this: Put the subject first, verb second, direct object last. Or, in lay terms: [Someone] [did something] [to something else]. This format yields clear sentences with solid impact.

If that clarity and brevity makes you feel squeamish, be a rebel. Rebels take control. Omit needless words.