Thursday, December 29, 2011

Concise writing is usually clear writing (24) – Chris Hedges

Here’s another sample of clear, concise writing. It is from a 2008 column by American journalist Chris Hedges (pictured) on the corruption of American journalism.

The past week was a good one if you were a courtier. We were instructed by the high priests on television over the past few days to mourn a Sunday morning talk show host [Tim Russert], who made $5 million a year and who gave a platform to the powerful and the famous so they could spin, equivocate and lie to the nation. We were repeatedly told by these television courtiers, people like Tom Brokaw and Wolf Blitzer, that this talk show host was one of our nation’s greatest journalists, as if sitting in a studio, putting on makeup and chatting with Dick Cheney or George W. Bush have much to do with journalism.

No journalist makes $5 million a year. No journalist has a comfortable, cozy relationship with the powerful. No journalist believes that acting as a conduit, or a stenographer, for the powerful is a primary part of his or her calling. Those in power fear and dislike real journalists.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful, grown-up diction and the careless, infantile diction that besets us every day.

See disclaimer.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Insist on clarity! – an editorial

Author Dan Pallotta (pictured) believes we should insist on clarity. He has written a powerful blog post about our misguided toleration of others’ deliberately unclear diction. Read the post here.

The Takeaway: I agree with Mr. Pallotta. I often insist on clarity and I recommend that you do likewise. If you’re not yet accustomed to being assertive, start out with easy encounters. For example: While you are shopping, a clerk approaches you and asks, “All set?” You respond, “To do what?” Nine times out of ten, the clerk will quickly correct his question to “Can I help you find something?” You have gently but successfully shamed an indolent clerk into using the clear, polite, grown-up diction that his job requires. His quick correction proves that (1) he knows darn well that his job requires grown-up diction; (2) he knows how to use such diction; and (3) he avoids using it only out of indolence. If enough of us keep reminding these slackers to speak adult English, they may decide to make it a habit.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A heavy user of mixed metaphors

All writers occasionally distract their readers by inadvertently using mixed metaphors. You do it, I do it, we all do it. But some writers use mixed metaphors heavily.

For example, here is an essay that contains many mixed metaphors. I quote four below (boldface added):

Even a minor foreign policy or economic event like a Greek default or Middle East crisis could reap [sic for wreak] havoc with the precarious interlocking sovereign debt pyramid in the West.

Of course, no nation wants a collapse – especially China – because a western debt collapse and write down is certainly uncharted financial waters and the contagion risks are global.

Consequently, after 30 years of watching, writing and creating protective retirement planning and financial strategies, today I'm finally going to yell “FIRE” inside the closed “financial iron curtain” which is America.

I do not have a crystal ball or inside political information on a specific imminent threat, only the observation that the sovereign debt crisis from Europe, a debt ceiling misstep from the clowns in Washington or a Middle East event could suddenly trigger the collapse. [Clowns in Washington are walking upside down on the ceiling!]

I don’t mean to pick on this writer; many other financial writers are equally heavy users of mixed metaphors.

The Takeaway: Mixed metaphors can distract your readers. In some cases, they make your prose impossible to understand. Ideally, you should have someone edit your copy, because it is difficult to spot your own mixed metaphors.

See disclaimer.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Concise writing is usually clear writing (23) – Lysander Spooner

Here’s another sample of clear, concise writing. It is a paragraph that explains why a highwayman is morally superior to a politician: both rob you, but the highwayman otherwise leaves you alone. This paragraph is from No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority (1870), by Lysander Spooner (pictured), a Massachusetts lawyer, entrepreneur and essayist.

The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a “protector,” and that he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him to “protect” those infatuated travellers, who feel perfectly able to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection. He is too sensible a man to make such professions as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful “sovereign,” on account of the “protection” he affords you. He does not keep “protecting” you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, and an enemy to your country, and shooting you down without mercy, if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villainies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful, grown-up diction and the careless, infantile diction that besets us every day. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Editing advice from Richard Rhodes

In case you missed it: Richard Rhodes (pictured), author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” recently offered some excellent editing advice in The Wall Street Journal. His advice is especially helpful for beginning writers.

Here’s an excerpt.

The work of writing, I tell [students], isn’t simply copying down their self-talk. If they think so, I say, try transcribing a conversation and see how much is redundant or extraneous.

No, the work of writing is deliberately choosing a voice, a fictional construct, in which to argue or narrate, and then, through draft after successive draft, composing and editing a translation of their self-talk into prose that others can read and understand.

The Takeaway: I have nothing to add except my frequent reminder: keep reading. In particular, spend at least 10 minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly; it will help you follow Mr. Rhodes’ advice more easily.

See disclaimer.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A five-minute fix

I frequently see business writing that (1) confuses and insults the customer and (2) could be fixed in five minutes or less. Here’s an example from an email I received.


Your order has been processed and shipped. You may track your package/s after 8:00pm at or with the following tracking number:

Date Shipped


Tracking Number:

Please note: If no tracking number appears above, your order has been sent via U.S. Postal Service. Please allow 3-5 business days for delivery via U.S. Mail.


Although the company apparently has set up an automated shipping confirmation system, the company has not bothered to set up separate message formats for UPS shipments, FedEx shipments and USPS shipments. Instead, the company sends a confusing “one-size-fits-all” message to all customers.

Five-Minute Fix

If the company had set up three separate message formats, the message I received could have read like this:

We shipped your package 11/07/11 via First-Class Mail. It will be delivered to you in 3-5 business days.

The Takeaway: Intelligent customers understand that good business writing takes time and that your time is limited. They don’t expect perfection. But they do expect you to make easy, five-minute fixes like the example here.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (7)

“God does not much mind bad grammar, but He does not take any particular pleasure in it.”
~Erasmus (pictured)

“Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.”
~Matthew Arnold

“The secret of play-writing can be given in two maxims: stick to the point, and, whenever you can, cut.”
~W. Somerset Maugham

The Takeaway: Keep an open mind. Have a great day.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning, a friend and a clear writer, for pointing out the first two quotations.

See disclaimer.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Concise writing is usually clear writing (22) – Mark Fuhrman

Below is another sample of clear, concise writing. It is the beginning of a chapter on the 1993 death of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster, in The Murder Business: How the Media Turns Crime Into Entertainment and Subverts Justice, a book by former Los Angeles Police Department detective Mark Fuhrman (pictured).

“Here’s a tip that may sound callous. If you plan to commit suicide, do your loved ones a favor and make it abundantly clear. Choose perhaps a bridge during rush hour.

“You may not want to blow your brains out on live television, like disgraced politician Bud Dwyer did, but you really should, out of respect, make sure you have reliable witnesses of some kind.

“But whatever you do, don’t go into a vast park you have no connection to, with a gun not familiar to your wife, with bullets not traceable to your stash, leaving no definitive note, telling no one, promising your secretary you’ll be back shortly, and hope that everybody is able to work it all out after you’re gone. Don’t be in that much of a hurry. Please. Write a suicide note that actually has your fingerprints on it, at least. And don’t tear it into thirty-seven pieces and put it in your briefcase. Especially if you are the Deputy Counsel to a scandal-plagued, power-mad administration.” (Emphasis in original.)

This passage is highly readable; it scores 65.6 on the Flesch Reading Ease test. Although the language is indirect and sarcastic, the passage clearly expresses the writer’s point of view and feelings. It lists a few of the many clues that would have made an experienced homicide detective strongly doubt that Mr. Foster (Bill Clinton’s lawyer) killed himself. It also conveys Mr. Fuhrman’s anger over the handling of this case; later in the chapter, he calls the investigation “almost mind-bogglingly unorthodox.”

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful, grown-up diction and the careless, infantile diction that besets us every day.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Jacques Barzun on the evolution of language

Many professional writers admire historian Jacques Barzun (pictured) for his books Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers and On Writing, Editing, and Publishing. In the latter book, he includes this warning:

“There is no getting around it: meaning implies convention, and the discovery that meanings change does not alter the fact that when convention is broken, misunderstanding and chaos are close at hand. True, the vagaries of those who pervert good words to careless misuse seem more often ludicrous than harmful. This might give us comfort if language, like a great maw, could digest anything and dispose of it in time. But language is not a kind of ostrich. Language is alive only by a metaphor drawn from the life of its users. Hence every defect in the language is a defect in somebody.”

The Takeaway: Get in the habit of reading this warning from time to time. I keep a copy of it on my “Why It Matters” page.

Mr. Barzun turned 104 yesterday.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Safety warnings (3)

We’ve previously discussed unclear safety warnings (1, 2). Here, for a change, we discuss a clear safety warning: the wording of the sign in the picture above. This sign appears at several places on the tree line of Mount Washington, the highest peak in New Hampshire.

Compared to the highest peaks nationwide, Mount Washington isn’t much: it’s only 6,288 feet high. There are many peaks more than twice as high; Mount McKinley, the highest at 20,320 feet, is more than three times as high.

But more people have died on Mount Washington than on any other mountain in the United States, and all but a few mountains worldwide. Two big reasons are weather and location.

The cone of Mount Washington has literally the worst weather in the United States. Wind speeds can exceed 200 miles per hour. Rainstorms and snowstorms are difficult to predict and can overtake a hiker in minutes.

Nearly 70 million people can drive from their homes to Mount Washington in a day or less. As a result, many inexperienced hikers climb it. Many of them are drastically unprepared; for example, they take a summer stroll up the mountain carrying no warm clothes, no shelter, and no food. This is risking death by hypothermia.*

In short, Mount Washington is often underestimated. That is probably why the government used uncharacteristically direct and clear language in those tree-line signs. The government knew that, for many hikers, those signs would be the only clue that they could be fatally unprepared for the trail ahead.

The Takeaway: If you are ever responsible for writing or editing a safety warning, give it your most careful attention. Readers depend on you.

*There are more deaths in August than in any other month.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

It’s OK to mention product benefits

Most marketing experts agree that a supplier should not sell its product or service too hard. For example, a supplier should not overstate the benefits of its product or service.

But it is also possible to err in the other direction, by mentioning no benefits at all. For example, this is the entire text of the web page about a product called Helium:

What is Helium? Helium is a minimalistic real-time kernel for the HC(S)08 core by Freescale and Atmel AVR.

Update. Future releases of Helium will compile with gcc. Codesourcery provides a pre-compiled command line toolchain featuring gcc, g++, etc. as well as linker scripts and startup code for the 68k/Coldfire architecture. Instructions for building a cross-compiler on Mac OS X with gcc are here.

2009-2-28 HELIUM 2 RELEASED. Go to the downloads page to get your very own copy.

Visit the Helium Users’ Group on Yahoo to post questions and find answers to common problems (created 8-11-2008).

Please help to offset development costs by donating to the Helium project.

So far as I can see, the web page includes no benefits at all. Maybe technical insiders can infer benefits from the product description. But even if that’s true, it does not help the relative newcomers who may read this page.

The Takeaway: If you are marketing a product or service, be sure to mention benefits, not just features. Prospects want to know the benefits of your product or service.

Happy Thanksgiving!

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The power of specificity (1) -- David Brooks

As we mention often on this blog, one way to improve your writing is to keep reading examples of good writing. David Brooks (pictured), a columnist for The New York Times, recently provided a superb example of a hard-hitting essay. In this piece, he satirizes Americans’ beliefs about inequality.

I especially call your attention to one characteristic of the piece: specificity. Instead of using a lot of generalities, he relentlessly pounds away with example after example.

He organizes the examples into pairs. For instance,

“Fitness inequality is acceptable. It is perfectly fine to wear tight workout sweats to show the world that pilates [sic] have [sic] given you buns of steel. These sorts of displays are welcomed as evidence of your commendable self-discipline and reproductive merit.

“Moral fitness inequality is unacceptable. It is out of bounds to boast of your superior chastity, integrity, honor or honesty. Instead, one must respect the fact that we are all morally equal, though our behavior and ethical tastes may differ.”

He goes on: Acceptable, unacceptable. Acceptable, unacceptable. Soon the reader recognizes that Americans are, to put it kindly, inconsistent on inequality.

This is a writing technique worth emulating.

The Takeaway: If you want to be persuasive when arguing or debating a point, use specificity. A sustained barrage of specific examples in plain language can be more powerful than the most beautifully worded generalities.

See disclaimer.

Update, Wednesday, November 30, 2011: Prompted by a comment from Anonymous, I changed liberals to Americans. Thank you, Anonymous.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Concise writing is usually clear writing (21) – Gary North

Here’s another sample of clear, concise writing. In this sample, historian Gary North (pictured) explains why Penn State behaved as it did during “The Paterno Affair” (Sandusky scandal). In 318 words, he describes how universities developed administrative law, a system different from the jury system that most laymen think of as law.

The West has developed two unique and crucial institutions: the university and the jury. The first has always been at war with the second.

The mark of the university’s claim to legal sovereignty is the black academic gown. Judges wear them. So do graduates and professors. So do clerics. From the earliest days, universities demanded equal sovereign status with church and state. It was an illegitimate claim, but it has stuck.

College professors got their money from students in the old, old days. Students would not pay the flakes. Students’ standards prevailed. They established the success indicators. The substandard professors – always in the majority – hated this. It forced them into a free market. They changed the rules. Students henceforth paid the college. Mediocre professors run the college: majority rules. “He who can, does. He who can’t, teaches. He who can’t teach, administers.” This has been true for 800 years of university life.

The university was a collection of semi-autonomous colleges. They established boundaries. They demanded autonomy from the cities in which they were located. This was the origin of the phrase, “town and gown.” The mark of this autonomy was the university police force. The professors and the students claimed near-immunity from city councils and city police. The university police’s #1 task was to keep city police off campus. Only secondarily were the university police to establish order on campus.

Add to this state funding since about 1870 in the United States, and decades earlier in Prussia, the modern university’s academic model. The state now asserts jurisdiction over the university. It pays; so, it sets the rules. This jurisdiction is separate from, and quietly in opposition to, the city’s geographical jurisdiction. The university substitutes its hierarchical system of courts from the city’s. The city’s system of justice is based on the jury. The university’s is based on administrative law: judges and police combined in one non-elected autonomous system.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful, grown-up diction and the careless, infantile diction that besets us every day. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Placement of modifiers (15)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear writing. Here’s an example of the careless placement of a modifier:

The deputy editor of Harvard Magazine lays the blame for passing on these chores to corporations.

The reader at first thinks that the phrase “to corporations” modifies the nearby phrase “passing on.” But this sounds wrong, so the reader reads the sentence again. This time, he recognizes that “to corporations” actually modifies the verb “lays,” which is farther away than “passing on.” In other words, he sees that the writer meant to write:

The deputy editor of Harvard Magazine blames corporations for passing on these chores.

The Takeaway: Place every modifier carefully. Don’t make your readers work harder to read a sentence than you worked to write it.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

George Carlin on euphemisms (3)

The late comic George Carlin (pictured), a keen observer of language, had a lot to say about euphemisms. For example, here’s a transcript of a portion of one of his routines from the late 1980s. (Warning: profanity.)

And some of this stuff is just silly; we all know that; like on the airlines, they say they want to pre-board. Well, what the hell is pre-board? What does that mean? To get on before you get on? They say they’re going to pre-board those passengers in need of special assistance.

Cripples! Simple, honest, direct language!

There’s no shame attached to the word “cripple” that I can find in any dictionary. No shame attached to it. In fact, it’s a word used in Bible translations: Jesus healed the cripples. Doesn’t take seven words to describe that condition.

But we don’t have any cripples in this country any more; we have the physically challenged. Is that a grotesque enough evasion for you? How about differently abled? I’ve heard them called that: differently abled. You can’t even call these people handicapped any more. They’ll say, “Were not handicapped; we’re handi-capable.” These poor people have been bullshitted by the system into believing that if you change the name of the condition, somehow you’ll change the condition. Well, hey, cousin (raspberry sound), doesn’t happen. Doesn’t happen. (Ovation)

We have no more deaf people in this country; hearing-impaired. No one’s blind any more; partially sighted or visually impaired. We have no more stupid people; everybody has a learning disorder. Or he’s minimally exceptional. How would you like to be told that about your child? “He’s minimally exceptional.” “Oh, thank God for that.”

Psychologists actually have started calling ugly people those with severe appearance deficits. It’s getting so bad that any day now I expect to hear a rape victim referred to as an unwilling sperm recipient. (Ovation)

The Takeaway: Every euphemism falls somewhere in the spectrum between polite forbearance and malicious deceit. As a writer, you need to know, at all times, where you are in that spectrum. I won’t presume to tell you never to deceive, but as a writing coach I have a duty to tell you not to deceive unintentionally. As Oscar Wilde quipped in an analogous context, “A true gentleman is one who is never unintentionally rude.”

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 7, 2011

An intentional and humorous mixed metaphor

In one scene in P.G. Wodehouse’s comic novel Heavy Weather, Montague “Monty” Bodkin is pensive as he takes an afternoon walk. He feels certain that he is about to be fired. The narrator says, “The sack, it seemed to him, was hovering in the air. Almost, he could hear the beating of its wings.”

The Takeaway: P.G. Wodehouse (pictured) was a genius and was writing comedy; for those two reasons, he got away with mixing metaphors. You and I generally cannot.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Sloppy logic (2)

Recently I analyzed a passage about histrionic personality (hysteria) as an example of sloppy logic. Here’s another example of sloppy logic: a passage from politician Elizabeth Warren (pictured). Economist Robert P. Murphy provides a detailed analysis of the passage.

Mr. Murphy begins, “There are so many things wrong… that it's hard to organize them.” But he does organize them, and he discusses them clearly. This is a fine example of a logical, analytical mind at work.

The Takeaway: If you write non-fiction and want your readers to trust you, you must be diligent in your use of logic. One way to keep improving your use of logic is to read clear thinkers like Robert P. Murphy.

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Mantra overload (9)

Mantra overload – the excessive use of trendy, vague expressions – is a bad habit of many corporate public relations people. The habit is especially noticeable in press releases about executive promotions. For example, an IBM press release issued last week quotes* chairman Samuel J. Palmisano on CEO-elect Virginia M. Rometty:

“She brings to the role of CEO a unique combination of vision, client focus, unrelenting drive, and passion for IBMers and the company’s future.”

In that 24-word sentence, I count five mantras: unique, vision, focus, drive, and passion. If you ever happen to have time on your hands, you can entertain yourself for hours looking for an executive appointment release that does not include at least two of those five mantras.

The Takeaway: If you intend to write clearly, do not mimic corporate public relations people. With few exceptions, they are heavy users of mantras and other evasive terms. Overuse of mantras hampers communication, damages your credibility, and dulls your mind. Use mantras sparingly or not at all. Keep asking yourself, “What do I really mean here?” Over time, this diligent habit will make your writing more precise and more honest.

Thanks to Janice L. Brown and Paul G. Henning for pointing out these instances.

See disclaimer.

*It is unlikely that Mr. Palmisano actually uttered (or wrote) those words; “quotes” are usually crafted by the public relations people.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sloppy logic

Many writers write without thinking. As a result, their writing is sloppy and their logic is sloppy. They make arguments that may appear to be logical but are not.


For example, consider the book Emotional Vampires, by Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D. An acquaintance of mine mentioned that the writing and logic were sloppy throughout. I bought a copy of the book and opened it at random. I was immediately rewarded with an example of sloppy logic:

“Histrionic personality has for centuries been considered primarily a disorder of women. This misperception arises from the fact that the Histrionic types most often seen in clinics are stereotypically feminine.

“There are plenty of Histrionic men as well. They tend to seek approval and acceptability more than attention. Their roles are masculine stereotypes – fifties dad, avid sports fan, joke-telling raconteur…” (Page 88)


Dr. Bernstein says it is a “misperception” to think that histrionic personality is “primarily a disorder of women.” Now, because there are only two sexes and Dr. Bernstein denies that histrionic personality is primarily a disorder of women, he necessarily claims that it is primarily a disorder of men.

But for proof, he offers only, “There are plenty of Histrionic men as well.” The word “plenty” may or may not mean a majority; therefore it is insufficient proof of his point.*

The Takeaway: If you write non-fiction, you must be diligent in your use of logic. If you are sloppy, your readers are less likely to trust you.

See disclaimer.

*To be fair to Dr. Bernstein, let us admit the possibility that a politically correct, logic-deficient editor wrote and inserted this passage, in an effort to pander to politically correct, logic-deficient readers.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Do not abuse the term "access to"

Abusing the term access to has become a mania. The term has its proper uses, of course, as for example in, “I can’t get access to my email right now.” But most of the instances we see today are pompous abuses.

For example, the man who installed my wood stove said, “I don’t just do installations; I can also service your chimney, because I (pause) have access (pause) to brushes.”

Meaning that he had a brush in his truck. Whoop-de-doo. I had access to a brush, too; it was in my barn. Any doofus who has $50 in his pocket and can find his way to a hardware store has access to a brush.

When people habitually abuse access to in this pompous way, and see others abuse it in this way, they eventually begin to think that having access – any kind of access – makes a person more significant.*

Even professional writers make that mistake. For example, in Jeffery Deaver’s novel The Burning Wire, criminologist Lincoln Rhyme places significance on the fact that one suspect is “a former soldier… who might have access to weapons like a nineteen eleven Colt army forty-five.”

In fact, millions of Americans who were never in the army “have access to” such a .45, simply because they own one. And more than two hundred million more Americans “have access to” one because they can buy one by taking a few hundred dollars and a photo ID to the nearest gun shop.

The Takeaway: Don’t use the term access to in a pompous way. It will make you sound ignorant and foolish.

See disclaimer.

*As George Orwell explained, “the English language… becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The periodic sentence (5)

A periodic sentence is a sentence in which essential information comes late. In other words, the reader has to wait a long time before he can understand where the writer is going.

The opposite of a periodic sentence is a loose sentence, a sentence in which essential information comes early. A loose sentence is what we tend to think of as a normal sentence.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using a periodic sentence. However, it does make your reader work harder than a loose sentence does. In everyday writing, you should use periodic sentences sparingly if at all.

Example of a periodic sentence

Here’s an example of a periodic sentence:

“This government has decreed those who believe in the rule of law; the right to self-determination; the right to defend themselves; veterans who have or might awaken to the tyranny; those who support political candidates who oppose criminal government and those who believe killing a living being to be murder, the enemy.”


It is a 52-word sentence. The reader must read all 52 words, especially the last two words (“the enemy”) before he understands the meaning. That’s too long to make the reader wait.

The sentence is also cumbersome.

Loose version

Here’s my suggested loose version:

This government says you are its enemy if you believe in the rule of law, the right to self-determination, or the right to defend yourself; or if you believe it is murder to kill a living being; or if you support political candidates who oppose criminal government; or if you are a veteran who has awoken – or who may awaken – to the tyranny.

My version is less cumbersome, but still cumbersome.

The Takeaway: Use periodic sentences sparingly, if at all, in business writing, technical writing and most other non-fiction writing. The more words the reader has to take in before understanding the sentence, the more likely he is to become confused. But keep in mind, loose vs. periodic is not a matter of right vs. wrong. It is a matter of context; periodic sentences are good for building suspense, and many writers use them effectively in poetry, drama and oratory.

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why I show you so much unclear writing – an editorial

To help writers learn to write more clearly, the writing teacher or coach must not only show and analyze examples of clear writing; he must also show and analyze examples of unclear writing.

Showing and analyzing unclear writing is especially important in times of cultural decadence; in such times, many people deliberately choose to be unclear, because it’s trendy.

The writing teacher Quintilian, who taught in Rome during the late first century A.D. (a time as decadent as our own), put it this way:

“Nor is it without advantage, indeed, that inelegant and faulty speeches, yet such as many, from depravity of taste, would admire, should be read before boys [pupils], and that it should be shown how many expressions in them are inappropriate, obscure, tumid, low, mean, affected, or effeminate; expressions which, however, are not only extolled by many readers, but, what is worse, are extolled for the very reason that they are vicious….”

The Takeaway: If you wish to write clearly, you must work diligently to avoid imitating the average man. The average man is too ignorant and stupid to speak or write clearly and too corrupted to try to learn how. He mindlessly imitates the diction of celebrities, many of whom are only semi-literate. To remind myself of these truths, I occasionally glance at a picture of celebutard Paris Hilton (shown above). Ms. Hilton has inspired millions of Americans to debase their speech and themselves.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (12)

Mixed metaphors can be amusing. However, we writers are usually more interested in informing and persuading our readers than in amusing them. Mixed metaphors may distract our readers and impede information and persuasion.

Example of a mixed metaphor

Blogger POLITICO writes, "Tax hikes, by any name, are a non-starter for a party that forged its brand on the mantra of lower taxes..."

Example of a mixed metaphor

Columnist David Brooks uses the expression, "the mother of all no-brainers."

Example of a mixed metaphor

Blogger Fred Reed opines, "She [Maureen Dowd] writes as if she were fifty, a tad overweight and, having grossly overestimated her value in the meat market, missed the train. (I have a federal license to mix metaphors like that.)"

The Takeaway: Mixed metaphors can distract your readers. In some cases, they make your prose impossible to understand. Ideally, you should have someone edit your copy, because it is difficult to spot your own mixed metaphors.

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Political language (3)

Recently we discussed two types of political language: the pompous euphemism and the deceptive name. Another type of political language is the unexplained slogan; a good example is, “If You See Something, Say Something,” a trademarked slogan discussed in a recent press release issued by Janet Napolitano, head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Nowhere in its 500-word press release does the U.S. Department of Homeland Security bother to explain what it means by “see something.” In response to this vagueness, a blogger has written a humorous essay about a few suspicious “somethings” that he has noticed about Janet Napolitano, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Ben Bernanke, Barack Obama, and other politicians.

The Takeaway: If you use a slogan without explaining it, your readers may respond in unexpected ways. To be better understood, explain your slogan in specific language.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Diction and the entrepreneur – an editorial

Many people believe that a businessman doesn’t need good diction in order to succeed. This belief ignores an important fact: most people judge you by your diction. Fairly or unfairly, they assume that if you are indolent in your diction you are indolent in everything.

For example, a journalist asked a venture capitalist what kind of speech or behavior marks an entrepreneur as an amateur. The venture capitalist answered, “Entrepreneurs shouldn’t overly use buzzwords to describe the business. ‘We have a cloud-enabled, big data, social graph platform...’ ”

Keep in mind, the man who gave that answer can make or break an entrepreneur who comes to him seeking funds. And yet, as his answer suggests, many of these seekers do not bother to present themselves as diligent grown-ups.

The Takeaway: People judge you by your diction. They don’t just judge your diction; they also judge your character. Need I say more?

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Don’t abuse the adjective “comfortable”

The adjective comfortable has become a mania word. We writers are often tempted to snatch it and use it instead of more precise language. This is a destructive habit. As George Orwell explained,* sloppy thinking leads to sloppy language, which leads to even sloppier thinking. That is why on this blog I object so strongly to the indiscriminate use of mania words such as comfortable, issues and drive.

A recent example of the abuse of comfortable

Recently I received a direct-response email with the subject line, “One Mindset Trap You Must Overcome.” The ad includes an example of a boss who does not delegate effectively:

“He has employees, but he still insists on doing the small tasks – like running errands – because he’s not comfortable asking the college-aged student to do it.”


This is a good example of a writer using the adjective comfortable because he’s too lazy to be specific. Does he mean that the boss:

Is too timid to ask the employee to do anything?

Fears that the employee will say “whatever” or give him some other nihilistic response?

Fears that the employee will agree to do the task and then neglect to complete it?

Fears that the employee will complete the task, but so poorly that boss will have to do it over?

Or something else?

The Takeaway: Don’t hide behind the adjective comfortable. Say what you mean.

See disclaimer.

*In his famous essay on the English language, George Orwell wrote, “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Political language (2)

Political language is language that is deliberately unclear. Politicians often use political language to hide inconvenient facts. For example, as Mike Holmes points out, when Afghan soldiers or civilians shoot down a U.S. military helicopter, many U.S. politicians (and reporters who ape them) refer to the event as a “helicopter crash.”

The term “helicopter crash” deceptively suggests an accident. The accurate term is a “shoot down” or a “kill”; both terms suggest that soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan are willing and able to kill airborne members of the occupying U.S. military.

The Takeaway: If you write or talk like a politician, intelligent readers or listeners will suspect you are hiding something, even if you are not. To be taken seriously, use straightforward language.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 26, 2011

"Addressing issues"

In several posts (e.g., here), I have discussed the abuse of the word issues. Today I discuss the abuse of the transitive verb address., which is often abused with issues.

For example, on September 18, 2011, I received this notice from Adobe Systems:

Update is ready to install

This update addresses customer issues and security vulnerabilities. Adobe recommends that you always install the latest updates


I will set aside the question of what a “customer issue” may be; the term is as vague as the term “health issue,” which I discussed here.

To say a software update “addresses issues” is almost certainly an understatement. During my career as a technical writer, I worked with a great many programmers; I never saw any of them write an update that merely addressed (paid attention to or dealt with) something. Their updates did more than address something; for example, they fixed a problem, improved a function, or simplified an process.

So, when Adobe Systems says it has addressed something, the company is understating what it actually did.

The Takeaway: If you write for a company, give the company credit for what it achieves. For example, if the company has fixed a problem, say so. Don’t undersell the company by using effete affectations such as saying “addressed the issue.”

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Subject and predicate

One rule of grammar is that subject and predicate must agree in number; a singular subject takes a singular predicate and a plural subject takes a plural predicate.

Incorrect example

“Since the merits of the Law Review’s selection policy has been the subject of commentary for the last three issues … ” The writer has used a plural subject (merits) and a singular verb (has). You can tell just from the sound that merits has is incorrect.


“Since the merits of the Law Review’s selection policy have been the subject of commentary for the last three issues … ” Plural subject and plural verb.

Incorrect example

“Approximately half of this first batch is chosen ... the other half are selected ... ” The writer has used a plural subject (half) and a singular verb (is) and a plural verb (are). Again, you know something is wrong just by the sound: half is and half are.


“Approximately half of this first batch are chosen ... the other half are selected ... ” Plural subject, plural verb, plural verb.

The two grammatically incorrect sentences were written by Barack Obama, when he was president of the Harvard Law Review. He made these two errors, and others, in a letter about affirmative action.

The Takeaway: Yes, your readers may be able to guess what you mean even if you use incorrect grammar. However, they will resent you for forcing them to guess and they will wonder if you are ill-educated. Learn (or re-learn) your grammar; it takes only 100 hours, less time than the average American spends watching television in three weeks.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Point of view

Many writers confuse their readers by mishandling point of view. For example, they state an opinion without clearly indicating who holds that opinion.

For example, Anonymous commented on my post, “A waiter who speaks English.” Here is his comment, with my analysis after each sentence:

Apparently, wishing people to express themselves in standard dialect is terribly offensive.

[Without the word “Apparently,” the sentence would be a statement of the writer’s opinion (the world as seen from the writer’s point of view). With the the word “Apparently,” the sentence suggests that the writer is sarcastically expressing his disagreement with someone else’s opinion. The writer has not yet named this person or these persons.]

Linguist Steven Pinker has explained that language is used as a means to convey status.

[Does Steven Pinker hold the opinion in the first sentence; i.e., that “wishing people to express themselves in standard dialect is terribly offensive”? The writer does not make this clear.]

The paradigm nowadays is not to show you’re educated or that you have good manners but that you are “cool”.

[Is this “paradigm” Mr. Pinker’s point of view? Or is it a shift to someone else’s point of view? By using the word “nowadays,” the writer may be suggesting that Mr. Pinker’s opinion (whatever it may have been) was once valid but is now out of date.]

So people sometimes overact, which can be annoying – you do not need to impress everybody.

[The word “So” suggests that the people who use non-standard dialect in order to sound cool are the people who “sometimes overact.” However, it is not clear. Nor is it clear who is being annoyed: it is all the hearers of the cool peoples’ non-standard dialect, or only those hearers who prefer standard dialect? The writer further confuses the reader by switching into second person with “you do not need to impress everybody.” Is “you” the overacting non-standard-dialect speaker? If so, is the writer saying that it’s OK for him to annoy his standard-dialect-preferring hearers or that it’s OK for him to sound less than totally cool and thereby fail “to impress everybody” who is cooler than he is?]

My guess as to what Anonymous meant to say

People use language not only to convey information but also to declare their status. A century ago, “status” generally meant education and manners; today it generally means ignorance and uncouthness. In order to sound ignorant and uncouth, many speakers affect a non-standard dialect. Many overdo it, annoying hearers who prefer to hear standard dialect. However, these hearers must silently suffer the annoyance, because society now considers it offensive to criticize people for being (or pretending to be) ignorant and uncouth.

The Takeaway: If your copy includes more than one point of view, let the reader know when you are switching from one point of view to another. Don’t make you reader keep wondering, “Who’s saying this?” “Who’s saying that?”

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Concise writing is usually clear writing (20) – Joseph Conrad

Here’s another nugget of clear, concise writing. It’s from the world-famous novella Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (pictured). The narrator, a steamboat pilot on the Congo River, fears that his crew of cannibals may get hungry enough to kill and eat the passengers. As he pilots the boat upriver, he reflects on the terrible power of hunger:

“No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its somber and brooding ferocity? Well, I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonor, and the perdition of one’s soul – than this kind of prolonged hunger. Sad, but true. And these chaps [the cannibals] too had no earthly reason for any kind of scruple. Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield.”

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful, grown-up diction and the careless, infantile diction that besets us every day. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 12, 2011

How Steve Jobs resigned

To resign the CEO position at Apple, Steve Jobs wrote this letter to the board of directors:

I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.

I hereby resign as CEO of Apple. I would like to serve, if the Board sees fit, as Chairman of the Board, director and Apple employee.

As far as my successor goes, I strongly recommend that we execute our succession plan and name Tim Cook as CEO of Apple.

I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it. And I look forward to watching and contributing to its success in a new role.

I have made some of the best friends of my life at Apple, and I thank you all for the many years of being able to work alongside you.


This letter is wonderfully concise. In only 142 words, Mr. Jobs:

Resigns his position
Explains why
Says what he would like to do next
Recommends a successor
Predicts increased success for the company
Says he will be pleased to take part in that success
Expresses his feelings about his many years with the company

The letter also is very easy to read; it scores an amazing 72.6 on the Flesch Reading Ease test (a 12-year-old could easily understand it). The typical CEO has never, in his entire career, written anything this readable.

The Takeaway: Take inspiration from Steve Jobs. Always strive to write concisely and simply. And keep getting better.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Grammatical shysterism

If you are striving to write clearly, you should carefully avoid grammatical shysterism, the deceptive use of grammar. Here’s a classic example of grammatical shysterism:

WBBM-TV, a CBS affiliate, interviewed a four-year-old boy on camera and then edited the interview to distort the meaning of his words. When other journalists exposed this offense, WBBM-TV issued the following statement:

“We accept responsibility for the mistakes that were made, both in the reporting and editing of the story. The video of the child should not have aired. As soon as news management identified the problem, they took immediate steps to ensure that the video would not air in subsequent newscasts. In addition, we have followed up with our employees to make sure that we all have learned from the mistakes that were made.”


When referring to the making, editing and broadcasting of the offensive video, the statement uses either passive voice:

mistakes that were made

or reflexive voice:

The video… should not have aired

When referring to what the station did after it got caught broadcasting the offensive video, the statement uses active voice every time:

We accept

news management identified

they took

we have followed up

we all have learned

The grammar suggests that a mischievous video aired itself on WBBM-TV but diligent managers at WBBM-TV immediately took steps to prevent that sneaky little video from airing itself again.

The Takeaway: Don’t slip into the habit of using grammatical shysterism; it will make you sound like a shyster.

Thanks to Janice L. Brown, a colleague and clear writer, for coining the term grammatical shysterism.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Don’t abuse the preposition “to” (2)

Don’t abuse the preposition to. In other words, don’t try to force it to do the work of other prepositions. Previously, I posted examples of this abuse: here are some recent examples:

“Studies have shown that every $1 investment in sanitation results in a benefit of anywhere between five to [sic for and] ten times that amount.” (Source)

“Climbing is different to [sic for from] other gravity assisted sports like snow boarding or skydiving.” (Source)

“Now obviously there are some basic ‘rules to [sic for of] the road’ that determine how people should interact in a functional civil society.” (Source)

The Takeaway: Be precise with your prepositions. It is a mark of a well-educated, well-read, careful writer. Need I say more?

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Political language (1)

Political language is language that is deliberately unclear. Politicians often use political language to hide inconvenient facts.

For example, during the U.S. military’s occupation of Iraq, U.S. citizens became accustomed to hearing and reading the political term improvised explosive device, a pompous euphemism for homemade bomb.

Most U.S. politicians (and reporters who ape them) avoid using the straightforward term homemade bomb because it reveals an inconvenient fact: Iraqi civilians are killing U.S. soldiers occupying Iraq. In other words, Iraqi civilians are doing what U.S. civilians would do to Iraqi soldiers occupying the U.S.

The Takeaway: If you write or talk like a politician, intelligent readers or listeners will suspect you are hiding something, even if you are not. To be taken seriously, use straightforward language.

See disclaimer.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (6)

“People mess things up, forget and remember all the wrong things. What’s left is fiction.”
~Daniel Wallace (pictured)

“The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
~William Faulkner

“I hate being compared to Faulkner – this kind of uppity, snooty southerner with his turgid prose based more or less on the Bible. I can’t bear to read Faulkner. It makes me want to puke. I just loathe Faulkner. And you can quote me on all of that.”
~Ernest Hebert

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
~Mark Twain

The Takeaway: Keep an open mind. Have a great day.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Quoting out of context (2)

Here’s an egregious example of quoting out of context. After three teens are shot, one of them fatally, a television station broadcasts an interview with a four-year-old boy. The interview in part:

Reporter: "What are you going to do when you get older?"

Boy: “I’m going to have me a gun!”

Context – the full interview:

Reporter: “Boy, you ain’t scared of nothing! Damn! When you get older are you going to stay away from all these guns?”

Boy: “No.”

Reporter: “No? What are you going to do when you get older?”

Boy: “I’m going to have me a gun!”

Reporter” “You are! Why do you want to do that?”

Boy: “I'm going to be the police!”

By airing the statement, “I’m going to have me a gun!” with no context, the television station misleads the viewer as to the speaker’s intention.

The Takeaway: Whenever you quote something, consider carefully whether the quotation needs context in order to be intelligible to the reader.

See disclaimer.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Three errors in eleven words

At a New Hampshire diner, the paper placemat displays ads from several local businesses. In one space on the placemat is this sentence:

“Tell these advertisers that you saw their ad on this placemat!”


The alert reader notices at least three errors in this 11-word sentence.

The first and most obvious error he notices is overdramatization: the exclamation point isn’t appropriate.

The second error he is likely to notice is an error in grammar: each advertiser has its own ad; therefore “their ad” should be “their ads.”

The third error he is likely to notice is poor composition: as written, the sentence means, “Call, write or visit all these companies and tell them that you saw their ads on this placemat.”

But that’s absurd; it is more likely that the intended meaning is, “When you patronize one of these companies, please mention that you saw the ad on this placemat.” And that’s how the sentence should have been written.

The Takeaway: Be especially diligent when what you are writing will appear in an ad. People who see your ad will usually take only three seconds to decide if it’s worth reading. Consciously or unconsciously, they use those three seconds looking for a reason to throw it away. So, don’t give them a reason. For example, don’t use inappropriate punctuation, bad grammar, or poor composition. Always ask at least two alert readers to read your ad before you publish it.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Narcissism can ruin your copy

Here’s a great example of how narcissism can ruin your copy.

A blogger gets an opportunity to interview the renowned management consultant Dr. Tom Peters. What a wonderful start.

The blogger interviews Dr. Peters.

But when the blogger publishes the post, "When Soft is Hard: An Interview with Dr. Tom Peters (Part I)," she talks about herself at length. Below are the first 400 words, color-coded as follows:

green = words about life in general
blue = words about Tom Peters
red = words about the interviewer

Holding ourselves back.

We do this in conscious — and unconscious — ways every day.

When I met Dr. Tom Peters on his trip to Iowa, I was made aware of how I was holding back an important piece of myself.

Perhaps my light-bulb moment will shine some light for you.

Tom is the best-selling author of In Search of Excellence, The Little BIG Things and a dozen other books.

Primarily trained as a behavioralist, he studied under pioneers in our field, including Daryl and Sandra Bem, Albert Bandura, and Philip Zimbardo. These master puzzle solvers showed him that there is a science of human behavior. There are ways people and groups predictably interact and behave.

So Tom is a brilliant scientist who observes and studies human behavior.

And…he is unapologetically, unabashedly passionate about people.

Why was meeting him such an eye-opener for me?

Because when I went through a life threatening illness a few years ago, I came out of the experience softer.

I didn’t know what to do with parts of my identity.

The scientist felt too hard. And the lawyer felt downright harsh.

I felt called to my Best Life Design work and it was an important part of my healing.

Yet, at the time I went to hear Tom speak, I was feeling a growing dissatisfaction with how ‘soft’ this work was beginning to feel. Although I continued to consult with select private athletic and corporate clients, I had drastically cut back on my work as a performance psychologist using science to help individuals and teams optimize performance.

And in one moment (…when the student is ready, the teacher appears) it all came back together for me.

What did Tom say that opened my eyes, reminding me of what I’d forgotten?

1. What’s hard is soft…and what’s soft is hard.

We tend to think of people and life design as soft. We throw values and relationships into that mix, too. Then we have the magic category of hard things, like research, systems, and strategies.

This is why I’d been struggling bringing the science of success that I know so well to the mushy place I’d been sitting in since my recovery. I’d been delighting in the preciousness of living and helping others design their life in a way that supports the greatest use of their gifts. Meanwhile, my inner scientist was shaking her head, questioning why I would [400 words]

The word count:

Life in general: 13 words
Tom Peters: 127 words
Interviewer: 260 words
TOTAL: 400 words

The Takeaway: Narcissism can ruin your copy. Don’t let it. Unless you’re writing a memoir or a personal essay, strictly limit your presence in the text. Your readers want to read about your subject, not about you. If you keep popping up in the text, they may conclude that you’re a flibbertigibbet and decide to stop reading.

See disclaimer.

Shown: A section of Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse, 1903. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Specious writing

Specious writing is writing that appears to be plausible but contains one or more fallacies.

Examples of specious writing

The American historian and economist Thomas E. “Tom” Woods, Jr., wrote an article criticizing portions of the book The American Search for Opportunity, 1865-1913, by the American historian Walter LaFeber.

Here are two passages from the article:

“LaFeber notes that between 1897 and 1904 (but really 1899 and 1902) ‘the greatest corporate merger movement in the nation’s history occurred.’ He chooses to omit the central point that most of these mergers failed. By leaving that out, LaFeber leaves us to imagine these great behemoths growing without limit, suffocating the poor consumer until the wise hand of government brings relief.” (Emphasis in original article.)

In this case, it is the omission of a material fact that makes the language specious.

“Andrew Carnegie, LaFeber tells us, ‘later admitted that he used the 1873 to 1875 depression years to buy cheaply and save 25 percent of his costs.’ Note the choice of the word ‘admitted,’ as if buying cheaply and keeping costs low were some kind of conspiracy against the public.”

In this case, it is the use of a loaded word that makes the language specious.

The Takeaway: Specious writing (whether intentional or unintentional) can attract embarrassingly accurate criticism. Unless you intend to be specious, seek the help of an intelligent editor who can keep you out of trouble.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

An ambiguous error message

While using an online software package, I received this ambiguous error message:

“There was an error validating your registration key. Our registration server may be temporarily down for maintenance.”


The wording allows four possibilities:

One. The registration server is not down. (That is to say, something else is wrong.)

Two. The registration server is down, temporarily, for maintenance.

Three. The registration server is down, temporarily, for some reason other than maintenance.

Four. The registration server is down, permanently, for some reason other than maintenance.

Does this software provider mean to say that it does not know what its systems are doing at any given moment? If so, whatever happened to that real-time visibility* that we keep hearing about?

The Takeaway: Every time you send careless writing to your customers, you reduce your company’s credibility. Consciously or unconsciously, your customers wonder, “Are the employees who build the product as careless as the employee who wrote this?” and “Haven’t the managers noticed how careless this employee is?” and “Or maybe they have noticed, but they don’t care.” And so on. And the customers tell many other people about your company’s carelessness.

See disclaimer.

*Google the phrase “real-time visibility” and you’ll get three million hits.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Clear out the verbal clutter (4) – a 52-percent reduction

You should always clear out verbal clutter, because verbal clutter confuses and irritates your readers. It is the main reason why people stop reading something you have written.

An Example of Verbal Clutter

Here’s a 261-word passage from a wordy article about retiring abroad.

1 – Where Will You Live? – Having decided upon a chosen nation it will be very important to give consideration to where within that nation you plan to set up home. You are likely to be able to make this choice a more informed one if you heed the above advice and actually spend some time getting to know your chosen retirement destination ahead of your ultimate relocation.

If you look at where you’re living currently in relation to other areas, towns and cities in your current nation you will be able to see why it is important for you to actively consider where you set up home abroad…

In your current nation there are likely to be highly expensive and unaffordable neighbourhoods, areas riddled with crime and poverty, industrialised sectors and some places too rural to possibly call home. In other words, those who are happiest have planned where they are living, with the planning based on what constituted a good environment for the individual at the time. You therefore need to spend time looking at your chosen retirement destination in order to find out where you could and where you would feel most at home.

Consideration should be given to aspects such as crime, the local economy, locally available amenities and facilities, whether there is an expatriate community, (which is desirable for some but not all relocating retirees), affordability, the quality of real estate, and even the local microclimate.

In order to be able to set up a new home abroad you need to ensure you get your location right.

My Rewrite, Clearing Out the Verbal Clutter

I shortened the passage by 52 percent, to 124 words.*

1 – Where Will You Live? – After you have decided on the nation, decide on the destination within the nation. This will be an informed choice if you spend some time in a destination before making it your final choice, as we explained earlier.

It also helps to look at where you are living now, as compared to other locations in your nation. You probably chose your current location over unaffordable locations, high-crime and low-income locations, industrialised locations, and locations that were too rural. Now apply the same thinking to your new destination. Consider crime, the local economy, locally available amenities and facilities, the presence of an expatriate community (desirable for some but not all retirees), affordability, real estate quality, and even the local microclimate.

The Takeaway: To hold readers’ attention longer, clear out the verbal clutter.

See disclaimer.

*A reduction this large is not unusual. Wordy writers always use at least twice as many words as they should; therefore a capable editor can always cut at least 50 percent on the first pass, without even working hard.