Up Your Writing
Previous issues of this newsletter covered topics such as organizing your ideas before you start to write and overcoming writer's block. Now let's assume you have a first (or subsequent) draft to improve.
Refer to this list next time you revise an email, article, briefing paper, or other piece of writing that needs to send a strong message:
1. Pluck the excess: Strunk and White wrote in The Elements of Style, "Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise." Review your draft (I find hard copy easier than on-screen) to find sentences, phrases, or words to delete without losing sense. For example, they called out these phrases that pop up in business writing: "owing to the fact that," "in spite of the fact that," and "call
your attention to the fact that." Instead: because, although, remind you/let
2. Be bold: Another Strunk and White-ism: "Put statements in positive form. Make
definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language."
Instead of "There is a shortfall in resources," could you write "We ran out of money"? (You can't always write that bluntly, but you get the idea.)
sentences with "who" and "what": As Roy Peter Clark says in Writing Tools, "make meaning early" in a sentence. Increase how often you begin sentences with a subject (noun/pronoun) and verb. Decrease how often you start a sentence with "there are" and "there is," which delay your main thought.
4. Power the start and the finish: Clark also suggests placing strong words at the
beginning and end of a sentence, where the eye naturally alights. As he quotes from Macbeth: "The Queen, my
lord, is dead."
5. Fall out of love: Sometimes we write a phrase or an example that flows so nicely that we hate to let it go. But sometimes it must happen when briefer is better. Martin Steinmann and Michael Keller list six ways to write concisely in NTC's Handbook for Writers: use the shortest synonym, avoid ineffective repetition of meaning ("basic fundamentals"), eliminate nearly meaningless expressions ("for all intents and purposes"), avoid wordy jargon, and combine choppy sentences.
Next month, some especially troublesome words and phrases to extract when you revise.
History versus Heritage
Organizations often want to share their past, but dealing with negative events can be a challenge. To put it prosaically, how much dirty laundry do you air?
David Hochfelder, a professor at the University of Albany, distinguished between "history" and "heritage" in a presentation I attended recently. He defined heritage as more celebratory and uncritical, while history delves into the fuller, more complex picture of the past.
Both heritage and history have a role in communicating the past of an organization, place, or person. Just understand when each is the more appropriate choice. Otherwise, you may end up with the Virginia governor's proclamation of "Confederate History Month."
Have you written a book or article? Do you have a communications-related blog or newsletter? I would love to share the information with others. Let me know what you have created. I'll write about it (and link to it) in another issue of this newsletter.