Write with a knife for more powerful prose

Finally happy with that document you’ve been working on all morning?

Great. Now go back and cut 20%.

That’s right. Shear it of a fifth before you press “send”. I guarantee the end result will be better than what you have now.

Not sure where to start? Here are some hints on what to discard.

1. Nix that first para
Whoah, sounds a bit drastic, doesn’t it?

Maybe. But if you’re anything like every other business writer out there, that first paragraph is just a load of corporate throat-clearing anyway.

If your opening line resembles any of the following, you’ve fallen prey to the preamble:

“At xxxx, we pride ourselves on/are committed to/believe in focusing on…”

“As a team leader, you play a critical role in the success of…”

“In my last message to you all I said…”

“In line with our strategy for…”

“In the last year, we have delivered…”

Don’t provide the strategic context. Don’t talk about what happened last year. And don’t tell your reader what they already know.

They’ll be skipping this stuff anyway so ditch dull warm-ups like the above and get straight to the point.

2. Save the bragging for your appraisal
The art of good corporate communication is about knowing the difference between what you’d like to say and what your readers really need to hear.

So, let’s say you’re announcing a new product, service, strategy or whatever.

Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but your readers really don’t care how many late nights and ruined weekends went into getting the thing off the ground.

Nor are they impressed by how much collaboration and innovation and other clichéd corporate values went into the project.

They just want to know what it can do for them. So lose the corporate chest-beating and get straight to the point. Write for your reader, not your boss.

3. Kill your darlings (but keep the bodies)
That particularly fine turn of phrase you’ve been patting yourself on the back for all morning? Sorry, it’s got to go.

The exhortation to “kill your darlings” has been attributed to several writers. But it probably originated with the English literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who warned against the use of “extraneous ornamentation”, saying:

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.

To this, I would add “keep the bodies”: paste that piece of purple prose into a document marked “hall of shame”. Return to it a few days later and you’ll see how right you were to let it go.

4. Bury dead verbs
As you may have learned at school, verbs are doing words. Dead verbs are verbs that do no more than pad out your writing. Take the following:

We’ll drive improvements in the business (“we’ll improve the business”)

We’ll deliver change across the firm (“we’ll change the firm”)

We must focus on co-operation with other teams (“we must co-operate with other teams”)

We have achieved success in 2011 (“we succeeded in 2011”)

In these examples, the dead verbs “driving”, “delivering”, “focusing on” and “achieving” do little but add extra words (notice how they’re all more or less interchangeable).

And they make the writing sound less forceful because the real verbs (“improve”, “change”, “co-operate”, “succeed”) have been relegated to the status of clunky abstract noun (“improvements”, “co-operation” etc).

Ditch dead verbs and you won’t just have extra word count to play with. You’ll also instantly sound less like a corporate drone and more like a human being.

5. Trim those wordy phrases
“At the present time”? You mean “now”, right?

And by “in excess of”, you mean “more than”, yes?

Then why not just say them that way?

A good rule of thumb is never to use any expression you wouldn’t use outside the office.

Presumably, you don’t talk like some jumped-up little wannabe lawyer at home.

So be brave at work and never use several words when one will do.

That means letting go of pompous phrases such as “in the event of” (“if), “in the absence of” (“without”) and “with the minimum of delay” (“quickly”).

6. Lose the hyperbolic adjectives
Yes, we understand you’re desperate to sell your brand’s product or service (or, as you’re no doubt tempted to call it, “experience”).

But spare us the inflated descriptors that make you sound breathless and not very bright. Like the person responsible for this, in fact, which plopped in my inbox shortly before Christmas.

This year we’ve not one but two fantastic New Year’s Eve parties. Celebrate in iconic style [huh?], with exclusive access to some of London’s most breathtaking views . . . head out onto our exclusive terrace overlooking the Thames to enjoy London’s incredible fireworks and breathtaking views.

Fantastic! Iconic! Exclusive! Breathtaking! Exclusive! Incredible! Breathtaking! Hmm. If they’d toned it down a bit they might have sounded a little more Exclusive! and a little less desperate.

Got any tips for cutting words to give your writing punch? Share them in the comments.

7 Responses to “Write with a knife for more powerful prose”

  1. David says:

    Oh God! there’s no way I want to look back at some of the stuff I’ve cut. Sends shivers up and down my spine just thinking about it.

  2. Will says:

    20%? Scary! Probably right, though, no matter how much I struggle with it sometimes. I’d add adverbs to adjectives – often you don’t really need them. A prime example is ‘really’ in that last sentence. Other common offenders are ‘usually’, ‘normally’ and co.

  3. Mark Needham says:

    I thought it was Cyril Connolly who coined the phrase “kill your darlings” in his book “Enemies of Promise.” If he did not invent the phrase he certainly popularised it!

  4. Berna Cox says:

    Every word true! I edit for the Plain English service in Ireland. Sometimes, my normally straight hair curls right up! :)

  5. Steve says:

    This invaluable and unique post brings to the fore Good Copy, Bad Copy’s core competencies of brevity, succinctness and excellence in written communications. Now more than ever, it is imperative that direct language is leveraged by managers and cliches are avoided where possible, to ensure greater understanding and promulgation of the concepts which will drive business growth going forward in organisations.

  6. Ruth says:

    Take out ‘very’ nine times out of ten. I suppose you could say ‘this one was big but that one was very big’ – otherwise extraneous. And follow cutting ‘very’ by excising many of your other adjectives. Turning passive verbs into active ones usually shortens the copy a bit – and makes you think. ‘it was done’ – yea, but who did it? Don’t know? Might be time to cut it out.
    Great post – and I love Steve’s comment.

  7. nick says:

    Less is not always more, it’s sometimes just less. Copy has to be persuasive, often in a subliminal way. Simply making copy shorter does not necessarily make it work better, it just makes it shorter. Engaging a reader to read all the way to the end is a skill that has been largely lost. It has to do with rhythm, pace, punctuation, grammar and tone.

    Of course avoid cliches and jargon but don’t be afraid to take your reader on a journey, if you have the skill to do so. They will probably enjoy it.

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