The best tool for a writer is the delete key. Cut, cut and cut again. We all overwrite. That’s what first drafts are for. The problems start when we accept a first draft as the finished product. The minute we fall in love with our writing, we are in trouble.
Sometimes we just need to stop and think – ‘what am I trying to say?’ Here’s a (real) example:
“If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.”
Which in plain English is:
“If you have any questions, please phone.”
Twenty-eight words replaced by seven. Here are three more tips:
Don’t send a bunch of words to do the work of one.
I remember a radio news report solemnly intoning that such-and-such a politician “went down to defeat today in Spain’s general election.”
‘Went down to defeat’… what’s wrong with saying ‘lost’? Four words used when only one was needed. Why write ‘they had a meeting’ when you could say ‘they met?’ Why say ‘at this point in time’ when you could say ‘now’?
Watch out for parasite words.
These are lazy words that creep out when you’re not looking, and attach themselves to perfectly good words:
- Personal friend… we’re in trouble if we have impersonal friends.
- Considered opinion… what other opinion would be worth sharing?
- Face up… adding ‘up’ to verbs like face, or meet is unnecessary.
Replace big words with small words.
- Implement > Do
- Sufficient > Enough
- Numerous > Many
- Referred to as > Called
- Assistance > Help
Why is it so important to trim out words, and favour shorter words? Because your readers are bombarded with offers and invitations and requests. And attention spans are getting shorter.
At one time you could assume your reader had an attention span of 30 seconds (90 words). Now it’s closer to 5 seconds (15 words). We decide very quickly whether we will watch a show, or listen to a song – or read your lovingly-crafted piece of writing. You want your readers to look at your message and go ‘wow’. Your writing needs to hit home fast. You can’t afford any clutter.
Most of your writing will have one objective – to make people think or act differently. They’re more likely to do that if the message is simple and clear.
Simplicity is central to any effective communication. Actor Christopher Plummer was once asked about an extended run as Prospero in The Tempest. Did he change his performance over the course of several months. No, he replied, the performance didn’t change. But the delivery did: “You find yourself eliminating certain kinds of busy mannerisms that you might have had – and you get simpler and simpler and simpler in whatever you do.”
Simpler and simpler and simpler is a great ambition for any writer.
Neil Everton has distilled a lifetime’s experience with some of the world’s top news organizations into his Media Mastery training aids for anyone worried about talking to reporters. The video, books, e-books and workbooks are available in the Podium Coaching online store.