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.
“It is my opinion that we should cut taxes.”
“I believe we should cut taxes.”
“We should 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:
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.”
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.”
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:
- “Stop”: you know exactly what to do, where to do it, and why–all with one word.
- “East – West Tollway 23 MI”: you know you better get your money ready in the next 20 minutes and why.
- “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.
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.