Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Quick fixes for the lazy writer

Every editor thinks he can make writers better (see point 2 for why some of these words are highlighted). But few editors can face the truth: most writers think they're good enough already. And even if they know they're not, they can't be bothered to learn all the editor's cherished rules. They don't care about the difference between participles and gerunds.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the pub with an author who told me that he deliberately writes about leveraging strategic solutions to turnkey issues going forward, because that's how the industry people he deals with talk. Makes you want to weep, doesn't it?

This post isn't for him. It isn't for the editor either. It's for the business writer who knows that his writing can be improved but hasn't got the time or inclination to learn any self-important editor's rules that he suspects were concocted randomly on a Wednesday lunchtime between the third pint and the second whisky. 

This post isn't about how to make your writing beautiful. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, it's about making stuff a bit less sucky.

1) Put words in a natural order
Here's a simple sentence: "Jane ate chicken yesterday." Keep to that order of events as much as you can: "Who did what when." 

So, when one of my authors wrote something similar to this: "ABC Co in 1999 implemented a business restructuring", I changed it to "ABC restructured its business in 1999."

2) Keep the subject next to the verb
Look at the opening of this post: every subject is right next to its verb except in one instance, where the adverb 'deliberately' has inserted itself. I haven't gone back and edited it to make this happen. That's how I write, and I'm feeling a bit smug that I was already subconsciously obeying my own rule. 

Every sentence introduces a subject, and every subject does something, as revealed by the verb. As soon as your readers encounter a subject, they want to know what the action was. Don't leave them in suspense. Answer the question 'who did what?' as soon as you can by putting the verb straight after the subject.

3) Keep the sentences short
Read it aloud and don't breathe till you reach a full stop. If you run out of breath before the end of the sentence, it's too long.

4) Use simple phrases
Don't write "more cost-competitive when compared to" when you could write "cheaper than". Don't write "due to it being" when you could write "because it is".

5) Delete adjectives and adverbs
You probably use three times as many as you need. "Total" can almost always go, closely followed by "overall", "ongoing", "rather", "very" and "quite". 

6) Ditch the numbers
Words are for telling stories. Numbers are data, and readers don't absorb data when reading stories. That's why someone can write: "Rates fell 11.2% from $9,468 to $8,330," and half of their readers wouldn't notice the mistake. And don't write 50% when you mean half.

7) Ditch the initials
Any paragraph spattered with initials looks daunting. Where possible, write the names of organisations in full, unless it's an organisation better known by its initials (OPEC, for example). Then consider knocking it down to title case: Opec.

8) Break any rule if doing so makes the sentence read better
That goes for all these rules too.

Moral: You're smart, you're articulate and you know your job. Simple language conveys that better.


  1. I edit mini-project reports for a Business School... I often want to weep! Thanks for the assurance that obfuscation helps no one.

  2. I couldn't agree more with this list. Well done. Perhaps your best tip -- read it aloud -- needs its own 'rule' as it's so useful. It's easy to gloss over the sucky bits when you read silently (with or without moving your lips). Not just running out of breath, but stumbling over anything should make the alarm bells go off.

  3. Excellent post which I will share with my contacts - there's a lot of obfuscation in the worlds I deal with!

  4. Most of my clients would need terms like "verb" and "subject" explaining.

    Your writer friend makes me cross - he just makes it harder for the rest of us to help our clients.

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