Is your writing as untidy as your desk? The question is prompted by an article I was reading the other day from Halifax-based professional organizer Jane Veldhoven.
Jane wrote: “Before you can design and set up a functional home office, you’re best to get rid of all the excess ‘stuff’. Keep your long-term vision in mind as you slog through the piles of paper, the mounds of old discs and stacks of newsletters that you mean to read one day.”
Jane’s message about clutter applies just as much to our writing as to our desks and offices. Let me rephrase her first sentence: ‘Before you can create a coherent piece of writing you’re best to get rid of the excess stuff.’
Sometimes our writing looks like a badly-organized desk. There’s a simple, strong thought there somewhere – but it’s obscured by clutter. The clutter is all those words and phrases that aren’t working hard to convey meaning.
Sometimes we slip in one of those wordy phrases, like ‘at this point of time’, when we really mean ‘now’. Or we write ‘prior to’ when we could say ‘before’.
Sometimes we slip into the passive voice instead of putting a subject firmly in charge of a sentence. The passive voice is invariably more long-winded than the active voice. ‘The house was destroyed by fire’ is two words longer than ‘Fire destroyed the house’. Make your subjects do something, rather than having something done to them.
Sometimes we indulge in nominalization. That’s when we take a perfectly good verb and turn it into a much weaker abstract noun. ‘We had a discussion about the problem’ is a weak way of saying ‘We discussed the problem’.
A tidy desk is generally more efficient than a cluttered one. And so is a sentence. So get rid of the clutter. Strip out those words that aren’t working hard. Keep your sentences down to 15 or 20 words. Favour short words over long ones. Your readers will thank you.
(This post is a short version of an article that originally appeared in our latest monthly newsletter. If you’re not already receiving the newsletter, you can sign up on our website.)
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.