Just Say No to These Three Enemies of Clear and Direct Writing

Just Say No

Whenever you write anything, you have a desired message to communicate to a desired audience, whether it’s writing an ad to persuade a customer to buy your product or writing a recipe so that others can make and enjoy your best dish.

Your goal, then, is to inform your audience, not to impress them. What does it matter if they love the words you use but don’t act on the message those words are intended to convey? That’s all you want–to get your message across as clearly and persuasively as possible. Anything that hinders your goal should be eliminated. Thus, you should just say no to the following three enemies of clear and direct writing.

1. Just Say No to Metadiscourse

Metadiscourse is writing about writing and is almost always extraneous and unnecessary. Examples of metadiscourse would be: “to sum up,” “candidly,” “I believe,” “note that,” “it has become clear,” and “I would like to point out.”

An example of a sentence rife with metadiscourse:

“I would like to take this opportunity to extend to you a hearty congratulations.”

The metadiscourse here is basically the entire sentence. There’s no need to tell the person what you’re about to do–just do it. Your whole point is to offer congratulations to someone. Don’t bury it under a bunch of filler. Just say:

“Congratulations!” Simple, clear, and direct.

Another example:

Bad Version

“It is my opinion that we should cut taxes.”

Okay Version

“I believe we should cut taxes.”

Better Version

“We should cut taxes.”

Best Version

“Cut taxes.”

The final version cuts the word count from nine to two and gets the point out more quickly and clearly than the original. If you’re the one saying we should cut taxes, then anyone reading already understands that you believe we should cut taxes (because you’re the one saying so).

2. Just Say No to Redundancy

Don’t use more words than necessary to describe something. Many writers casually add redundant modifiers to words that can stand on their own.

Examples of redundant phrases:

“Screaming loudly”

If someone is screaming, then they’re being loud. Just use the word “screaming.”

“Your own personal cubicle”

“Your,” “own,” and “personal” all pretty much mean the same thing. Better to write, “your cubicle.”

“MLB Baseball”

If you spell out the abbreviation, the sentence becomes, “Major League Baseball Baseball.” Either just use the abbreviation, “MLB,” or spell out the entire phrase, “Major League Baseball.”

“Past history”

You know what’s wrong with that one. I hope.

3. Just Say No to Pretentious Words

Don’t get out the thesaurus and hunt for intelligent, impressive sounding words that usually aren’t. Many writers believe they have to dress up their copy in order to present themselves as original and gain the attention and respect they want. This usually has the opposite effect.

As soon as you focus on trying to impress your readers, you’ve lost your way. You’ll start searching for just the right words and begin to lose sight of your real objective, which is to make a point and make it clearly. So, stop with the showiness and simply say whatever it is that you need to say.

Examples of pretentious words and their better, simpler replacements:

  • Inexorable: determined, unstoppable
  • Utilize: use
  • Ameliorate: improve
  • Denounce: criticize
  • Clandestine: secret, hidden
  • Comprehend: understand

If you simply focus on getting your message across clearly, and you actually do that, the style and originality and respect will come naturally–as long as your message is a convincing one. So use the words that most clearly and accurately convey your message, words that the broadest audience will understand and remember.

The Road Sign Method

If you have trouble determining whether or not your copy is weighed down with metadiscourse, redundancy, and pretentious words–try this:

Stop writing, get in your car, and drive around your city for a half-hour or so, just reading road signs.

People who write road signs have very little space within which to get their message across; the fewer the words on a road sign, the more likely drivers are to see the words and process the message it’s conveying. Only words which are absolutely necessary to get a message across are chosen–road sign authors must choose the few words they can put on a sign with extreme precision.

Here are three examples:

  1. “Stop”: you know exactly what to do, where to do it, and why–all with one word.
  2. “East – West Tollway 23 MI”: you know you better get your money ready in the next 20 minutes and why.
  3. “Do Not Enter”: you’re in for trouble if you try to come this way, so don’t.

Apply this same level of precision and concision to your writing, and it should significantly improve.

Summing Up

In order to make your writing as effective as possible, you’re better off eliminating these enemies of clear and direct communication:

  • Metadiscourse: don’t describe what you’re going to say; just say it.
  • Redundancy: don’t use two or more words to describe something when one word will do.
  • Pretentious words: use simple, clear words instead of expensive, little-known ones.

About the Author: Jesse Hines is the editor of Vigorous Writing, a blog that focuses on writing more clearly, persuasively, and profitably.

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Comments

  1. I know I’m guilty of breaking all three of these from time to time, especially when blogging in a hurry. Great advice, Jesse.

  2. Good article Jesse, but isn’t ‘basically’ extraneous, too as in: ‘The metadiscourse here is basically the entire sentence.’

  3. Yes, Jesse, you are absolutely right about the “pretentious” words. And I’m guilty of using such words sometimes, although I’ve started using shorter sentences. Sometimes I use the words because I like their sound in the sentence. For instance, I like the word “inexorable” :-).

  4. So…

    “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

    becomes

    “87 years ago, our ancestors built a free country. America. F*** yeah!”

    Doesn’t have the same ring to it.

    Undoubtedly, as you suggest, Lincoln was writing for his audience, which included not only the people who were in earshot of his address, but also all of posterity.

    Plus, the occasion demanded a certain solemnity (Yes, I said “solemnity.”) and even, perhaps, poetry to ease the hearts, comfort the souls, and strengthen the resolve of those who had to live through such troubled times.

    I just wonder why we don’t make room for such beautiful pronouncements and declarations anymore? Now, we get “We should be doing more, not less. We should aim higher, not lower,” as if we are so stupid that we don’t realize that the two things being compared are mutually exclusive.

    It’s possible to dumb things down too much.

    I’m all for clarity (though you may not be able to tell it), but super-simplicity and clarity cannot always be reconciled.

    Brian is a recovering lawyer… He should know. :)

  5. The way places use “au jus” is another for the “Department of Redundancy Department”.

    Arby’s does this with their French Dip sandwich advertising:

    “Dip on our hot, savory au jus and take the flavor to a whole new level”.

    Yeah, I know…”picky, picky”….

  6. I must admit, the # 1 seems to be a problem for me. I am fond of finding longer sentences to make my posts long. But I am working on it.

    But for the rest, I try to be careful with them. I really avoid using deeper words because I assume not all readers understand them. In fact, I assume my readers belong to the masses.

    Thanks for the reminders.

  7. Andrew, I don’t think so. Without the word “basically” the sentence is no longer correct.

    Cam, the Gettysburg Address is one of the finest examples of clarity and brevity around. At 269 words, it’s exactly the kind of writing that Jesse is advocating.

    Amrit, I like to use the occasional 5 dollar word myself. :-)

    Steve, there are times where copywriters intentionally break the redundancy rule. For example, “free gift” is redundant, but it generally works better.

  8. Brian – Considering the other speakers at the occasion went on for hours (as Lincoln could do from time to time), you may be right.

    But still, it could be made shorter and simpler. There is just no useful reason to make it so.

  9. I’ll try and remember these tips the next time I post.

    My only worry is a greatly reduced word count :)

    Cheers

    Stuart

  10. Many times I asked myself: what makes a good writing?
    Certainly not a good writer or not only a good writer.
    How many times we read something badly written or we listened to somebody who was not even able to speak correctly a language, but we felt something for it or him?
    Or we saw a photo and we felt indescribable emotions, even though the subject was nothing special? May be even ugly?

    I guess what makes it is the feeling we can express.
    With good or bad words. With a good or bad image.
    It is actually “saying” something that makes what we write or show special.
    The more, the better.
    If you really mean what you write, your feelings come out of what you write.
    Because there is no big happiness or sadness that we cannot communicate, even with an expression of our face.
    A good writer or a good actor can communicate a big emotion without actually being directly involved.
    And that is the greatness of art.
    Whatever form you consider.
    Music, painting, writing.
    Being able to communicate, to make “common” a feeling you have.
    Being able to involve, to share, to make the reader, the spectator, seeing and feeling.
    The sublimer of all arts is the one that breaks the loneliness in which we are born and in which we will die.
    The loneliness of living.

  11. Winston Churchill, in his inimitable style, put it this way: “The old words are best, and the old words, when short, are best of all.”

  12. Ronald Regan’s great speech about the Challenger Disaster, in which 7 people died (or .2% of the confirmed Union KIA at Gettysburg), was 648 word

    IMO, that makes Lincoln’s brevity that much more remarkable.

  13. Good grief. I’m so brief that I abbreviated words, cut out punctuation, and left out the first “a” in “Reagan.” Too much of a good thing, I guess. ;)

  14. Good advice. Thanks. Of course this sort of article always invites its own scrutiny.

    I’d take your own advice to tighten the intro to the Summing Up section:

    ORIGINAL:
    “In order to make your writing as effective as possible, you’re better off eliminating these enemies of clear and direct communication”

    MORE DIRECT:
    “To make your writing as effective as possible, eliminate these enemies of clear and direct communication”

  15. To many people like to hear themselves talk. The same people like to read their own writing. It’s too bad that they are the only ones that find themselves interesting.

    Less is always more.

    The Masked Millionaire
    http://www.TheMaskedMillionaire.com

  16. Cam Beck..just read your blog…very good.

    The Masked Millionaire

  17. Hmmm. “Just say no to redundancy”. Shouldn’t that be “Say no to redundancy”? :-)

  18. Charles Schoenfeld :

    “Criticize” doesn’t mean the same thing as “denounce.”

    By pointing this out, I am criticizing this post, but not denouncing it. On the whole, it’s a good post.

  19. HATE redundancy. Like ATM machine. Kills me every time.

  20. @Brian–Glad you liked the advice. Yeah, as Orwell said, ” Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” They’re guidelines which I think should be adhered to in general, though.

    @Andrew–Thanks. RE–“basically”–I thought about that too, but I decided that since the entire sentence wasn’t metadiscourse–“congratulations” is the one word that wasn’t metadiscourse–that I had to use the qualifier “basically” to be truly accurate. There are times when metadiscourse is helpful, though I think it’s fairly rare.

    @Amrit–Sure, using words that you like is good. My point is simply to make sure your message is crystal clear. But, depending on your audience, you could use plenty of pretentious words. Maybe.

    @Cam–I hear what you’re saying, but you may have missed my point. I’m not advocating the elimination of poetry and elegance in writing and I reject attempts to “dumb things down.” But…”beautiful pronouncements and declarations” such as the ones you mention are only memorable because the speakers’ messages were clear.

    Elegant writing is hindered by too much metadiscourse, redundant words, and pretentious words. The first goal is to make sure your message is clear–then you can go back and “poeticize” it up, which I’m all for.

    There are plenty of ways to make your writing elegant (I may attempt a post on that), but these three things get in the way of that goal.

    Besides, we’re talking about Lincoln and Reagan here…certainly Reagan had speech writers who knew how to use language extremely well; your average writer hasn’t reached that level yet, so paring out the filler to make the message clearer is what many of them should focus on most.

    I know that the success I have had with my writing went up once I took a college course that helped me to seriously eliminate metadiscourse. It was jarring at first seeing so many phrases and sentences redlined out, but it was also wonderful. I learned what clarity is and how to use language more clearly.

    @Steve–Good writers have to be picky.

    @Guardian Angel–If you have trouble with metadiscourse, I highly recommend reading any of the editions of “The Elements of Style” by Joseph Williams. It’s where I first learned of metadiscourse and how to cut it out.

    @Stuart–sometimes a greatly reduced word count is a good thing.

    @Patrizia–“If you really mean what you write, your feelings come out of what you write.”–Good point.

    @The Masked Millionaire–“Less is always more.” Great advice for almost anything in life.

    @Charles–You’re right. The way you used the two words “criticize” and “denounce” in your comment was superb. Good catch.

  21. I think about a #1-related lesson from a journalism teacher every time I write!

    One that should be added to everyone’s back-of-mind is “It goes without saying…” Umm…apparently not, because you ARE saying it!

  22. I do agree with this advice, and agree that we should try to eliminate pretentious words but, “comprehend” is pretentious? Really?

    I’m just nitpicking, though. This is good advice.

  23. Generally good advice. But…

    Are you serious about the pretentious words?

    Denounce and criticize have different connotations. And when did “denounce” become a “pretentious” word? Also, clandestine and comprehend are pretentious? I don’t agree, and don’t think writers ought to quit using them.

    Bigger or more syllables doesn’t equal pretentious and unnecessary. Sometimes the word is appropriate.

    A “clandestine meeting” carries a different meaning to me, for example, than a “secret meeting.”

    I 100% agree about utilize. I’m not sure how that became such a trend.

    I agree that usually the most straightforward and simplistic wording will be the most clear, but that doesn’t mean brevity and less syllables is best.

    I know advice articles need to promote hard and fast rules but these don’t hit the right chord with me.

  24. Jesse – In general, a message cannot be memorable to a wide audience unless it’s clear. I agree.

    I recently posted a positive review of the book “Letting Go of the Words,” which mirrors a lot of what you say.

    The thesis of the book applies not only to writing for the Web, but also to speeches and any other works that must be communicated to a wide audience.

    Your main point is well written and cogently argued.

  25. The words that you identify as “pretentious”, I call a vocabulary.

  26. This advice is reasonable it your goals are the ones described in the first part of the article. But the only time that those goals apply is when you’re writing advertising.

    In ordinary, real-life writing, all three of your no-nos can be useful.:

    Metadiscourse: without it, you can seem like a jerk. Compare “I think you’re wrong” with “You’re wrong.” Joseph Williams, one of the clearest writers of the century, says the same thing in his book Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace.

    Redundancy: Extra words can be bad, but they are useful for emphasis. “Your own personal cubicle” means the same thing as “your cubicle” but emphasizes a different idea, which is good in some contexts.

    Pretentious words: Sometimes it’s better to use the most common word. Other times it’s better to use the most exact word. It all depends on your situation. But there are very, very few pure synonyms in the language.

  27. @Adam–Certainly, whether or not a particular word is pretentious is often debatable. It depends on you, your message, and your audience. These are just some examples, some of which are perhaps borderline. Glad you liked the post.

    @Cam–I checked out that book review you mentioned. Looks like a good book. I appreciate that you do agree with my larger point about clarity.

    @Brenda–It’s always great to expand your vocabulary; that enables you to draw on more words, thus more accurately and colorfully describing your subjects.

    However, why would you say “utilize” instead of “use?” Or “ameliorate” instead of “improve?”

    Having a wide vocabulary is great (I guess), but if you don’t use it wisely and with precision, your writing won’t be that effective.

    I highly suggest people read “Politics And The English Language” by George Orwell.

    Read it here: http://www.ourcivilisation.com/decline/orwell1.htm

    A quote from the essay:

    “Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilise, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements.”

    Just because you CAN use a word doesn’t mean you should. It certainly doesn’t mean that it will be effective either.

  28. I agree with your point about meta-discourse, but I think saying “To sum up,” can be fine. Creating signposts for the reader who may only be skimming your writing is just helpful. Yes, sometimes you DO have to beat them over the head with it, and a summary can be pretty important.

  29. Great post. I must admit I often make sentences much longer than they need to be.

  30. I agree with the sentiments of the post, but believe (irony intended) that some of the examples could be better. I am new to this website, but you specifically say that “whenever you write anything” – whereas, context and the type of document / article is critical. For example, in your (1), some use of metadiscourse is useful (and often imperative) for adding both emphasis AND clarity. “We should cut taxes” is a direct statement whereas “In my opinion, we should cut taxes” (or preferably, “On the basis of research / empirical evidence, we should cut taxes”) makes clear the source of the statement. The former statement makes no such clarification, and could land you in trouble in some scenarios (e.g., any peer-reviewed publication. i don’t really like this example but I was trying to work with those from the piece.)

    Out of interest, why do you say “I believe” is better than “In my opinion” ? I can see no semantic difference between the two.

    I’m also struggling to find a situation where the “best” alternative is actually usable – there’s no way you could simply say “Cut taxes.” – the complete sentence would be something like “What should we do? Cut taxes.” which moreorless says the same as the alternatives – “Cut taxes” is more applicable to conversation, for example, in response to a direct question, and that is somewhere that I’m all for using as few words as absolutely necessary.

    In addition: “desired message to communicate to a desired audience”, “your whole point” and “bunch of filler” should be, according to the rules, “message to communicate to an audience”, your point” and “filler”, no?

    >> “Your,” “own,” and “personal” all pretty much mean the same thing. Better to write, “your cubicle.”

    I would argue that “Your own personal cubicle” whilst wordier would be preferable in certain contexts (e.g., a job description or similar) since you’re attaching perceived value to the cubicle by being more descriptive (even if it’s arguably not more descriptive at all.) And “pretty much” is fairly awful language – they either do mean the same thing, or they don’t. The point is to get your text as relevant and accurate as possible, without sanitising it so heavily that it becomes boring or cold?

    Again, I like the sentiment (and sorry if it seems like I’m picking the whole thing apart!), but I think that, for these tips, context is critical. If every author followed these rules, then today’s novels would be 30 pages long!

  31. @Joe–good quote from Churchill. Love it.

    @Richard–It would be normally. But I was using a takeoff of Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No To Drugs campaign to try to create a catchier headline. It was a copy writing choice, but yeah, if I weren’t trying a little creativity, I would cut out the word “just.”

    @Thomas–You’re right. Anytime you’re willing to put yourself out there, you have to accept the scrutiny. I certainly do. Your rewrite was good–that’s how I should have written it.

    @Sally–“It goes without saying…” That’s another horrible phrase. Good reminder.

    @Julie–What’s pretentious to me might not be to you, and vice versa. There’s legitimate debate about particular words, certainly. But…”clandestine” essentially means “secret” so if you’re writing marketing or ad copy, in most cases, “secret” is more effective and clear for the broadest audience, I believe.

    @ Matthew–You’re right about the metadiscourse being necessary at times as qualifiers to prevent you from looking like a jerk. However, unless you’re using metadiscourse for that reason, it’s usually filler that gets in the way of clarity.

  32. This post is just what the doctor ordered.

    I hate to admit it, but these three are always present in my writing. Lots of editing always follows. If only I could combat these three naturally.

    Practice, practice, practice.

  33. I agree with being as clear as necessary.

    But I disagree with always speaking plainly instead of using metadiscourse, or never using more specific words.
    It depends on the audience.

  34. I’m guilty! I remember my highschool paper editor always giving a mouthful whenever I turn in my columns. I just keep on breaking this ‘rules’ of simplify, simplify an simplify.

    Thanks for remind me. :D

  35. I am so guilty of metadiscourse writing that I probably need to go to Metadiscourse Anonymous. Thanks for the post and wake up call…

  36. @ Jesse – They’re razzin’ you, bro… welcome to guest posting ;)

    Good job and I agree. Short, sweet and simple – especially on the web.

  37. I agree with simplification in most fields. I am usually pretty simple with my writing – however I got busted on being too simple from one of my clients. He wanted me to use a thesaurus and hunt out bigger words for my copy… I guess you can’t win them all.

  38. Wow, this may be exactly what I need to make my blog writing more presentable. Printed!

  39. I consider myself a decent writer, but I catch myself breaking these rules all the time. Its even worse for some other bloggers I consult.

    Thanks for the reality check, Jesse.

  40. The redundant phrase that really gets me is “the Potomac River.” Why? Because “Potomac” means river (in Latin). It’s why people in DC call it “The Potomac.”

  41. I do enjoy the word “inexorable.” But not using $20 words out of context is a battle I’ve been fighting my whole life (parents highly-educated so I was using big words early). I hope I’m getting better.

  42. As much as I’d love to make a real, substantive, contribution to this discussion, it appears to me that the entire topic has already been covered, and so I will eschew any additional commentary.

    (grin)

  43. Great, great post. I will use this in the posts ahead. Thank you!

  44. Its easy to get caught up in the act of writing and forget what the purpose is. ha ha ha! I think most writers are guilty of all of these from time to time

  45. Hey there,
    I am surprised that so many people agree with you. I don’t.
    Sure you are right about too long sentences that bring nothing to the message but you took it too far.
    “I believe we should cut taxes” and “cut taxes” is not the same. The first is an expression of my opinion, it can be an opening for a discussion or for some but-sentence afterwards. The second is an order.
    And “to sum up” “in one word” “on the other hand” and so on are very important sing posts for the reader. They let him prepare for whatever part of text is going to come and therefore absorb the MESSAGE better.
    Now, I can say:
    You are wrong – this puts me in the position of authority
    or I can say:
    I think you are wrong – this gives me the chance to be a partner of discussion with you.
    To sum up, every word counts and every word changes the meaning of the sentence.

  46. Oh My Gosh! I’m a culprit, everyday in fact. I make disclaimers all the time. Thank you for the advice.

  47. This post, without metadiscourse…

    Your writing will suck less if you do these things:
    Use fewer words
    Don’t repeat yourself
    Don’t look cleverer than your audience

  48. @Mr. Shiney–I agree that creating signposts to help “sum up” the main points are helpful. I actually did that here–the subheading for the end of my post says, “Summing Up.”

    @Jeremy–Thanks. Long sentences themselves aren’t necessarily bad. My first sentence in this post is quite long. It just depends on what the sentence contains.

    @Matt–“I believe” is better than “in my opinion” because it’s fewer words and it’s much stronger–“I believe” is in the active voice, containing a subject and verb, really getting the sentence going, but “in my opinion” contains neither a subject nor a verb. It really is just filler.

    “Cut taxes” is best, I believe (metadiscourse alert), because it’s straight to the point and again, whoever says that clearly believes that and holds that opinion; no need to state that you believe or have that opinion if you’re in the process of giving that belief or opinion.

    Certainly, you will often need to add qualifiers to bolster your legitimacy or refrain from being arrogant, but my point was primarily to encourage writers to get their message out clearly, without any haze. You can then go on to explicate the simple thesis with a more complex argument.

    “Your own personal cubicle” is ALWAYS wrong. I can see where “your own cubicle” would work–for example, in the case you mention. But while you might want to combine two redundant modifiers for emphasis, I’m not sure you would ever really need three.

    Glad you like the sentiment. I’m all for constructive deconstruction. And I absolutely agree–context is critical. I thought about qualifying my advice with the perhaps necessary disclaimer that context deeply matters and there are exceptions to these rules.

    But, I figured that, given the state of so much “professional” writing I’ve seen, sometimes it’s better to just advocate “cold turkey” to rid oneself of the bad habits–once cured, then you can have a drink (use metadiscourse) every now and then.

  49. @Bruce–Glad you liked the post. Constant editing is a key to clearer writing, no question.

    @Duff–We agree on being clear. But I wasn’t promoting “always speaking plainly,” just clearly. And my whole post was about using specific words, being as specific as you can in your descriptions. Often, the three enemies get in the way. Use the most accurate words you can find.

    @jhay–Simplify. I agree.

    @Teasas–Forget the group meetings. Just buy “Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace” by Joseph Williams, a great book on writing that I incorrectly called “The Elements of Style” in an earlier comment. That book is by Strunk and White. They’re both great. Get ‘em.

    @James–They were so much nicer to you yesterday. I love the magnifying glass, though (for now). It helps me tighten my work up.

    @Julia–Hunt through a thesaurus? I read that Stephen King said (paraphrasing here) that any word you had to look up in a thesaurus is the wrong word.

    @Troy–Glad you enjoyed the post and found it helpful.

    @Dave–You’re welcome. I’m often waking myself up whenever I write this stuff.

    @Trond–Great point.

    @ Mrs. Micah–We’ve all got our favorite big words. Don’t have to kill them, just use them more appropriately (when appropriate).

    @Boring–Thank’s for the compliment. After so much intense critique (which I’m all for), it’s nice to hear from someone who did enjoy the post and found it useful.

    @Shane–we all are.

    @Pete–not really, but if you only got that, then you’re still ahead of the game.

  50. “Commenced” is one of my pet-peeve pretentious words.

    This was a good read. I think many non-professional writers (such as myself) often commit these mistakes because we don’t have the confidence to keep it simple.

  51. Maria makes a very interesting point to. I think the writing style should firstly support the objective of the article and flow with the ‘personality’ of the writer.

    I agree with Jesse when the sentences are used in the context of marketing and blogging. In marketing, you have to appear confident about your product/services/brand so using ‘I think …’ would be a bad thing. In blogging, it is already understood that it is your opinion so why remind people that it is only so? By saving the word count, I can get my point across quicker and ‘influence’ people before they bore out. The same with how those quick short sentences used in TV ads acquire belief/trust from the less skeptical crowd.

    In a personal email sent to a friend, I would be more tactful with the words I use as I agree that ‘You are wrong’ sounds more arrogant than ‘I think you are wrong’.

  52. @ Jesse – I know, it wasn’t meant to be completely serious

    Although if you want to see someone who can break number 3 to great effect, check Denny Hatch’s blog.

  53. TIP:

    Write for “cartoon bubbles”. Use strong verbs, specific nouns and appropriate adjectives. 7- 10 words tell the whole story.

  54. Great post.

    I attended a creative writing course recently, and same idea: ‘use as few words as possible.’

    Adjectives: bad, verbs: good.

    Where appropriate use lively analogies, metaphors and so on.

    Got a long sentence: try and break it up into two or more sentences.

    However, at the same time, I still think that it is important to find your voice. Dickens wrote long sentences, but his prose was still great.

  55. @ Trond — Latin for river is flumen (hence, fluvial deposits). Potomac is a Native American word. I suspect people in D.C. refer to it as “the Potomac” in the same way that people in London refer to “the Thames” or New Yorkers speak of “the Hudson.” If you need an example of multilingual redundancy, how about the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles? Brea is Spanish for tar.

  56. Great post! Using big words isn’t always a bad thing though. What if you use those words on a daily basis? Why should you ‘dumb down’ for your audience?

  57. @ Cordiva – How many people do you want to reach with your words?

    There is a difference between writing with simpler words so that many people can read your work and writing in a manner that excludes people who:

    1 – Have English as a second language
    2 – Have less education
    3 – Are younger
    4 – Are unfamiliar with certain words or terminology
    5 – Read quickly by necessity

    For example, my blog was once graded by some silly software thingy as reading at an elementary school level. After the initial, “WHAT?! But I’m GENIUS!” moment, I realized I’m perfectly happy with a lower level of vocabulary because:

    1 – My teenage daughter can read my work and understand it
    2 – My French neighbor can grasp the concepts of my posts so we can talk them over
    3 – My friend who never went to high school can read most of my material.

    It’s about accessibility. Instead of “dumbing down,” we should call it “higher accessibility.”

    Make sense?

  58. @James
    Makes sense. Yes. But only if your goal is to access as many people as possible. And I’m not saying there is anything wrong with it.
    But I also think there is a point in “educating”. Do you want your teenage daughter to remain at highschool level vocabulary forever? And I can tell you that as a non-native English speaker I enjoy finding new words, checking them in the dictionary and using them afterwards.
    Of course it is not about using thesaurus for every word you write but employing now and then a more sophisticated vocabulary.
    Let’s keep English beautiful rather than “accessible”.

  59. @ Maria – I think French is prettier, actually :)

    I agree with you, to a certain extent. I want my daughter to see a new word and want to research it, yes. I do not want her so overwhelmed by literature language that she loses complete interest and goes off to text her friends with two thumbs and a cellphone.

    It’s like cooking. You can leave flavors natural, you can add a bit of salt, you can put in some squirts of soya or you can douse the whole thing in hot sauce.

    Likewise with writing, I feel.

    But you’re right, there are always markets for all types of writing and who you’re targeting very much makes a difference in how you’ll write.

  60. @Maria: I get your point, but it really depends on the context of the writing. If we’re writing sales copy, beauty isn’t necessarily the right way to go. It’s not wrong, per se, but the simpler the language, the better the copy is likely to do.

    If we’re writing something that’s meant to be entertaining (literature, for example), then using more poetic language is certainly acceptable. Even in this case, though, simplicity of language—or at least economy of language—can be valuable.

    I agree that we shouldn’t dumb things down, but there is a difference between making a piece of writing accessible to a broad audience, and simply dumbing it down. That difference is sometimes unclear, but I think it’s generally better to lean toward simpler language, at least in the context of sales and advertising copy.

  61. @James – You are Genuis, my friend. Don’t let some software program keep you down.

    I agree writing to a broader audience is a good thing, but I also believe firmly in writing with your own style. If flourishes in the language makes a writer feel better about their work, who are we to stop them. Instead, we learn to appreciate their style.

    Anyone whose sat through more than one episode of Deadwood knows exactly what I’m talking about.

  62. Excellent advice, Jesse.

    Good form!

  63. What is the difference between:-

    1) My girlfriend is beautiful!

    and

    2) My chick is a devastatingly beautiful blonde bombshell!

    Altho the second sentence choked full with useless Metadiscourse adn redundancy… I think it has thousand times more marketing value!

    The same thing applies to online marketing / article writing!

  64. @Eiffel,

    I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with you. Those are two entirely different sentiments. The second, although colorful, is rife with fluff and could be reworded while still having the same impact.

  65. @Maria–“Cut taxes” isn’t simply an order; it’s a declaration, perhaps a tight slogan that more quickly captures attention than “I believe we should cut taxes.” It all depends on your purpose though, I’ll admit.

    “To sum up” really doesn’t work for me. Better to do what I did in this post–use a subheading that says “Summing Up” at the end of the post as a major signpost rather than clutter your copy with that.

    I agree with you that “every word counts.” That’s why I advocated only using the most accurate words and the fewest words necessary to make your point. You are right that each word can significantly change the meaning of a sentence.

    @Mike–Glad you enjoyed the post.

    @Mark Claudius–I think you have found just the right balance. Eliminate metadiscourse rigorously in blogging/marketing copy. But it certainly has its uses in more personal, potentially touchy communication. I should have made that clearer, but I also wrote this post for a blog with a tagline that says “copywriting tips for online marketing success.” So, I think the rules fit the context here. You made some great points.

    @Maggie–very good tip.

    @Eamon–your suggestions are great, and you’re right that whatever rules we follow, we need to find our own natural voice. That’s always key to any type of good writing.

    @Corvida–Glad you liked the post. I’m not saying big words are bad nor am I saying that you should dumb down anything. I am saying that you should use clear words, which may or may not be big.

    @Bob–Thanks for the compliment.

    @Eiffel–actually the second version of your sentence is not choked full with metadiscourse. Metadiscourse is stuff like “in my opinion” or “I believe that.”

    It is choked full with redundant modifiers, which do add more color than the first sentence, but I think it borders on overkill.

  66. To those who objected to my advice because you thought I was stripping language of its elegance and so on:

    Remember the context of this particular post on this particular blog.

    I wrote this for a blog whose tagline is “copywriting tips for online marketing success.”

    And my post was titled, “Just Say No to These Three Enemies of Clear and Direct Writing”

    My advice is in the context of clear writing for online marketing, although I do advocate the essence of this message for all writing.

  67. Those things are so small that we don’t even pay attention to them but they do make a difference. Thanks for pointing out the common writing mistakes.

  68. Jesse, well done. In case it wasn’t said yet: Break rules when you have to. So, write “ATM machine” when “ATM” would confuse the audience, use a fancy word if nothing else suffices, etc.

  69. Guilty!

    Of using too many words to say too little.

    Repenting now…

    Have a great day,

    Dan
    http://marketersrelief.com

  70. I both agree and disagree. Specifically regarding the metadiscourse point, it completely depends on the context. It depends on the style taken. It depends on the content the writer is selling.

    For example, if I disagree with you, it would be more acceptable for me to say, “Well, I think you are wrong on XYZ point” rather than “You are wrong on XYZ point”.

    *There’s more to writing than making your point.*

  71. All writing rules can be summed up here: Say what you need to say; no more, no less. Then stop.

    Cheers!

  72. Awesome post. No matter how many times I go back to edit my writing, there are always more words I can cut or ways I can simplify for clarity. It is a really valuable exercise. These days, I have started the habit of drafting my blog posts and then editing them a day later to clean the language before posting. This ensures I am looking with a fresh eye.

    Great stuff.

  73. I think we’re all guilty of breaking these rules. It’s great to be reminded just how silly we can sound. Thanks for the advice!

  74. Thanks for the article. It inspired me to post shorter blog entries after a string of long ones.

    I find it helps to take walks after writing a draft. It’s such a weird thing how you think you got it right the first time but then you come back and Whoa!

  75. @Adam–Glad I could help out.

    @Easton–Thanks for the compliment. Yes, break any rule if you have a compelling reason to do so. I quoted Orwell in an earlier comment and I’ll do it again:

    “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” I agree.

    @Daniel–We’ve all been guilty of that, probably every day.

    @Shaun–You’re right that there’s more to writing than simply making your point, but even when you add the metadiscourse to say “I think you are wrong” instead of “You are wrong,” you’re still trying to make a point that you think someone is wrong without coming off as arrogant. You’re still communicating a message, with or without metadiscourse. And of course, context and content are critical.

    @Almost Vegetarian–Good rules and you’re right.

    @Jonathan–Thanks. The habit you have of doing the draft one day and editing it for clarity and concision the next is a great one.

    @Kirsten–You’re welcome. And, yes, we are all guilty. I often go back over my drafts and ruthlessly cut out stuff. It’s kind of fun.

    @Mark–Glad you liked the post. Yeah, it’s helpful to draft your post or article, take some time away before you post it, and then go back over it–like you say, you’ll often realize you should cut out (or add) significant parts before it’s ready for publication.

  76. “Your own personal cubicle” is ALWAYS wrong.

    By the same reasoning, “Your own personal Jesus” would ALWAYS be wrong – but it worked rather well for Depeche Mode.

    I can see a place for “Your own personal cubicle”. What I CAN’T see is a place for saying that a particular type of sriting is ALWAYS wrong. It goes back to connotation: “Your cubicle”, “Your own cubicle”, “Your personal cubicle”, and “Your own personal cubicle” convey different meanings. The appropriate usage is the one that conveys the intended meaning.

    After all, the ultimate goal is getting your point across clearly, right?

  77. @Tony–Good point that “your own personal…” worked well for Depeche Mode with that song.

    But…you say that “your own personal cubicle” conveys a different meaning than “your own cubicle.” I disagree.

    They’re really saying the same thing–that one of the perks of working here is that you get your own cubicle.

    By definition, that is personal, unique to you.

    “Your own personal cubicle” and “your own cubicle” mean the same thing, as best I can tell. What’s the substantial difference?

    If there isn’t one, then using three redundant modifiers to describe something is overkill, which is the opposite of what I advocated in my post title–clear and DIRECT writing.

  78. @ Cam Beck: presidential speeces aren’t marketing copy. At least, they shouldn’t be.

  79. Thanks for the post. Its really helpful…you pointed out the common mistakes overlooked while writing..

  80. I’ve got to call you on pretentious words. As someone else commented, I call it having a vocabulary.

    The English language is beautiful. There’s a word for everything, if you can find it. The most subtle differences in meaning can be communicated with the right choice of word.

    To take two of your examples – denounce isn’t the same as criticise. They’re really quite different. I might criticise your post but I certainly don’t denounce it or denounce you (there’s far too much great writing in your blog for that!)

    Likewise clandestine suggests something being illicit, whereas secret does not. It’s just secret. You could equally well substitute secret with covert – is that a pretentious word?

    It would be a sad and rather dull world if everything was dumbed down so much that the subtlety and precision of the written word was lost.

    As a thoroughly ironic sign-off, I’ve enjoyed reading the persiflage!

  81. This advice is good advice if and only if you work in advertising, marketing, and their related fields, and your goal is to persuade, convince, inveigle, win over, or motivate. For that purpose, this advice is fine.

    In all other arenas of writing it fails utterly. The comments about dumbing down and “it’s not pretension, it’s vocabulary” are spot on the mark.

    Poetry is the art of using the exact, perfect, precise word or phrase to convey an experience to the reader; poetry evokes, it isn’t meant to persuade; the best poetry creates an embodied experience in the reader, pulls them into the world of the poem. Poetry is neither advertising copy nor philosophical argument—although it can of course pretend to be, in form.

    This kind of writing advice is completely useless for anything in “fine art” literature. Do not confuse the two.

  82. Art: First, this blog is called Copyblogger. It’s about copy writing (i.e.: advertising, marketing, persuasive copy, etc.). It’s for this type of writing that these “rules” were written.

    Second, I disagree with you that the rules fail miserably when it comes to any sort of “artful writing.” These rules can be relaxed in other forms of writing, and perhaps especially in poetry, but clear and concise writing is almost always a good thing, regardless of whether you’re writing marketing copy or a novel.

  83. Art,

    You said:

    “This kind of writing advice is completely useless for anything in ‘fine art’ literature. Do not confuse the two.”

    I don’t think we have. This post was written for a blog which says its purpose is to offer “copywriting tips for online marketing success.” It makes no claims about fine art, as far as I can tell.

    That’s essentially what this post is about–clear, direct, persuasive writing.

    What I am confused about is that you apparently expected to find poetry writing advice on an online copywriting and marketing blog.

  84. I love this post… Not just about blogging for me but ridiculous management-speak endlessly poured out by bosses around the world.

    “In terms of moving things forward, what are you doing to extract the most business from your current customers?” = “pull your finger out!”

  85. This post is just what the doctor ordered. I hate to admit it, but these three are always present in my writing. Lots of editing always follows. If only I could combat these three naturally.

    Practice, practice, practice.

  86. Redundancy:

    I think sometimes we need to have flowery words when we are describing so that our readers will really feel and understand what we are trying to say.

    Pretentious words:

    I agree with this. This words makes readers click the x button in the upper right corner of their screen. hehe

  87. I thought I knew how to write until I took my first journalism writing class in college… and I have to say, the best thing I learned was how to keep my writing short and sweet. In these days short attention spans, metadiscourse is a strategic writer’s worst enemy.

  88. Your metadiscourse point is very good. I find myself doing it a lot and having to rethink, especially in my business writing.
    The really important one for me is about redundancy. The more I notice it in a piece of writing, the more it annoys me and the more likely I am to stop reading.

  89. I agree with what you wrote about as soon as you try to impress people with your writing you are getting off track. It’s important to be “on message” as they say in politics. Using clear, simple language is always best.

  90. Hi All,

    Have just created a blog & am finding these tips very useful -thanks.

  91. I suppose it’s the old KISS forumula i.e. Keep It Simple Stupid

  92. I don’t know why but this post was hilarious. Especially the MLB Baseball part.

  93. Now let me say this about this, not to be redundant and wordy, i say again and again…..(LOL i couldn’t resist, I had to do this.)

    This is a superb article. Congratualtions. Gary

  94. E.M. Johnson :

    Great article – and stellar blog all around. I’m a pro web writer and will definitely be back for more!

    (note: don’t think ‘VigorousWriting.net’ is quite the right title of Jesse’s blog- I think it might be ‘RobustWriting.com’)

  95. Wow, excellent post! Found this VIA Google and have bookmarked it for future content :)

  96. Excellent! I think this one word is comment enough :)

  97. I’m a spanish native speaker born in a latinamerican country and now making an internationalization of my communication. My reaction is perplexity: I can’t believe how complex my communication was a couple of years ago.
    What I’ve learned here is a style a lot less romantic but for all the pragmatic things you need to communicate in the modern life style it has so much sense.

  98. Great article…these are issues we all have to contend with, and the goalposts keep moving, too. Thanks for a good overview of the topic.

  99. Already you have mde me a better writer

  100. I had never heard of the word Metadiscourse before this but it is probably the biggest pet peeve of mine when reading others work. Thanks for the tips.

  101. “People who write road signs have very little space within which to get their message across;”

    You could have omitted the redundancy of “within which…”

    People who write road signs have little space to get their message across.

  102. This article is typical post-internet thinking. How did it come to this, that the dull blunt directness so often found in the uneducated is somehow superior to the nuanced discourse of more sophisticated communicators? It’s already bad enough that the world is descending into a “Idiocracy”-style morass where people talk in lowest-common-denominator vocabulary – let’s not make it mandatory “manual of style” now.

  103. The objective is to distil the meaning as effectively as possible, not to achieve minimalism as an end in itself. “My own personal cubicle” contains an emphasis that “my cubicle” doesn’t. If you’re not careful, writing at the reader like a series of road signs may make them feel they’re being barked at, which isn’t necessarily persuasive.

  104. Thanks for this blog post, Jessica. I love it when someone states principles so clearly. I’ll be checking out the road signs next time I go out!

  105. Great post, but I’ll disagree with Enemy #3. The most common word may not be the most correct word. In your haste to sound less “pretentious” you may end up sacrificing specificity, which is also a hallmark of good writing.