Put Your Words on a Diet

Goethe once wrote to a friend, “If I had more time, I’d have sent you a shorter letter.” Here’s why.

We’re all guilty of using clichés and resorting to figures of speech, especially after a long day slaving over a PC. Nonetheless, we still need to streamline our material and make sure that readers get something worthy of their attention.

Here are seven ways to cut the fat from your documents and get them back to health.

The Non-Designer’s Design Book

Let’s start.

Get a recent sample of one of your documents writing, for example, a sales letter or proposal, and look for the following horrors.

1. There are…

Avoid using this as an opener; it sounds jaded. It gives the impression that you couldn’t think of anything more interesting.

The same goes for “It is.”

These empty subjects and weak verbs add no value to your work and dilute the power of your writing. Rearrange sentences to avoid these fillers.

Not: There are now thousands of websites on the Internet.

Use: Thousands of websites are now on the Internet.

2. Ditch clichés

Make a list of your most frequently used clichés.

Paste it next to your PC, or wherever you work.

Once you’re finished drafting a document, double-check that you have not let any of these creep in.

Watch out for clichés entering your copy when you are tired, in a hurry, or impatient.

I tend to resort to clichés when I’m low on energy or waste want to wrap things up. It’s a waste of time. In the morning, I have to re-write it anyway.

Some words and expressions are so overused that they’ve been reduced to meaningless phrases.

For example:

Pre-plan — plan is fine. Can you really pre-plan?
Solution — isn’t everything a solution these days? There must be an alternative.
Seamless — is it really?
Micro Manage — manage
Access — usage, allow,
Paradigm — business model
Radical — different
Broad Range — spectrum
Synergy — connection,
Enterprise — company
Virtually Unlimited — endless
Utilize — use
Proactive — active

3. Remove what’s redundant

Go through your writing and root out redundancies, such as:

Blue in color (what else could it be besides color)
Large in size (what other kind of large is there?)
New innovation (is there an old innovation?)
End result (and the beginning result was…)
Final outcome (… was just the outcome.)

4. Be selective with Passive verbs

Passive verb tend to offer a weak, roundabout way of saying something.

In general, you can replace a passive verb with an active verb and improve the clarity of the sentence.

Not: The computer was built by John.
But: John built the computer.

5. Evil adverbs.

“Rather,” “very,” “quite”: These adverbs dilute your writing.

Cut them out and the meaning of your sentence becomes sharper and will resonate with more conviction. Poor adverbs tend to convey vagueness and a lack of interest.

Not: I was rather worried that our computers were quite unsafe.
But: I was concerned that our computers were unsafe.

6. Get to the point

We use the verb “say” so much that we tend not even to read the phrase itself.

Hemingway could get away with it, but you’re not Hemingway. Well, I’m not anyway.

Even though it’s nice to use an alternative choice every now and then, avoid using different verbs simply to get around using “he said, she said”. Constantly using different verbs in place of “say” knocks the reader off balance; it sounds contrived.

7. Jargon

Just as rappers (and their fans) used their own private language to differentiate themselves from others, companies also fall into this trap.

One of my former managers always spoke about ‘low hanging fruit.

I bet that if you worked for the company I did, you’d have heard it.

Why?

Everyone used this on conf calls and in presentations. It was company lingo. They all used it to emphasize that there were ‘in’.

There was never a plan – we ‘transitioned’ instead.

Programmers were ‘technologists’.

It was our own private, internal language. When it crept into emails, memos, and circulars, then it could be understood. But when it appeared in customer facing reports and technical documents, then you have a problem.

3 Style Guides I Recommend

The Non-Designer’s Design Book

Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (3rd Edition)

Technical Editing (4th Edition)

What clichés do they use at your place?