I’ve been editing other people’s writing as both a teacher and an editor for nearly 30 years, and if I could give only one piece of advice, it would be this: use fewer words.
When you were in school, research paper minimum word or page counts encouraged your verbosity, but now we are in the adult world and we are all incredibly busy, so pare it down. It is more difficult to write a shorter email or document than a longer one, because a shorter one requires revision. In fact, writers from Blaise Pascal to Benjamin Franklin have had this witticism attributed to them: “I am writing a long letter because I don’t have time to write a shorter one.”
I encourage you to take the time. Write your email or your handbook page, then go back and strike the fluff and filler. Your audience will appreciate it, and you will sound smart.
Here are some common words, turns of phrase, and structures that are weighing down your sparkling prose.
An intensifier is a word used for emphasis: extremely, rather, really, so, too, totally, absolutely, very. You can use these words occasionally, but most of the time they are unnecessary. “Very” is the blandest, most common intensifier—try to eliminate it. Are you very happy, or are you ecstatic? Are you very hungry, or are you famished? Already your writing is more vivid!
2. The Beginning of the Sentence
Most of us skim when we are reading—we read the beginning of a sentence, get the gist, and move on. The power of the sentence is at the start, so don’t squander it; get to the point.
Bad: The reason we have to implement this change now is because we are required to report these overages to the state.
Better: We are now required to report these overages to the state.
Bonus: Don’t add “because” after “The reason is . . ..” It’s unnecessary.
In a first draft, we are thinking on paper, and we tend to repeat ourselves. This is easy to spot if you reread before sending or publishing.
Extra words will find their way into your sentences as you write. To find these and other errors, read your email aloud before sending it. Microsoft Word can read your document to you—you’ll be surprised what you will catch.
5. Jargon and Clichés
“At the end of the day, writing is a way to interface in both the finance space and the marketing space, as we explore new verticals.” Write clearly in everyday English, using vivid words. For more on why clichés are so deadly to good writing, check out George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”
Try it this week—revise at least one email. I’d love to see how it goes, so feel free to send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org!