This season’s buzz phrase should be “buzz saw.” Everyone is cutting back. Congress is slashing budgets, residents trying to sell their homes are performing price-ectomies, and cities are trying to reduce their size to reflect falling population levels. To remain in tune with the times, it seems appropriate that we should work on ways to cut back on our writing, as well.
We no longer have patience for overstuffed paragraphs and inflated adjectives. Hard times call for hard edits, and we should do all we can to trim away the gristle and get to the meat. Of course, that’s good advice when writing in any environment, but perhaps we can gain some inspiration for tighter writing from all the other forms of tightening occurring around us.
Where do we start? We’ve already discussed the need to avoid redundant words and phrases. That goes a long way toward reinvigorating the page. Here are
five more steps you can take to hack your way to the heart of your writing and find the pulse that carries your story through the page.
- Reduce adjectives and phrases; substitute precise words. Using the most appropriate adjective or verb often can allow you to drop a series of unnecessary words. Instead of writing, “The frightening noise scared me to death,” it’s sufficient to say, “The noise terrified me.” In place of, “I am in favor of your recommendation,” try, “I support your recommendation.”
- Avoid causal or colloquial compounds.
When used casually, such compound phrases as “have got” or “have to” just lengthen the verb without adding anything to the sentence. Instead of, “You have to succeed,” write, “You must succeed.” Rather than, “Mom said we had to go home,” consider, “Mom called us home.”
- Put the most important information at the beginning or end of a sentence.
Avoid sentences that run across the desk and back to make a point. Place the key words at the beginning and/or end of a sentence to make it more forceful. Journalist Norman Cousins understood this when, instead of writing, “We need to be alert to the lessons that history has taught us,” he stated, “History is a vast early warning system.”
- Begin with your conclusion.
We are accustomed to laying out arguments and then expressing our conclusions. Consequently, reaching those conclusions may require reading a paragraph or an entire page. Try beginning with the conclusion and then providing a few arguments to support it. With the conclusion stated first, the entire thesis often can be condensed. This paragraph requires 44 words: “By adopting Internet technology, we will make our products available online. We expect that millions more customers will visit us on the Internet than come into our stores. That’s why we are certain to become the number-one retailer in our industry within two years.”Stating the conclusion first allows us to write supporting statements, in 39 words, instead of a build-up list: “We will be the number-one retailer in our industry within two years, since Internet technology will make our products available worldwide. Millions of people will visit our online store, far more than we could serve in our traditional shops.”
- Break out details or long sections into sidebar articles, lists or graphics.
Consider pulling out from your article sections that could stand on their own as sidebars. These could include examples, case studies, lists, question-and-answer sections, survey results, comments from others, bibliographies listing other articles on the topic, key aspects of the author’s biography, or maps and charts.
Cutting back and slimming your copy can help make it fit for these times, when the reading endurance of your audience is shrinking, as well.
— Steve Friedman is the director of marketing communications at Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley.