William Zinsser wrote in his book On Writing Well, “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.” It stuck with me, this idea that clutter is a disease. If I wanted to be a good writer, I had to be a surgeon. My scalpel was the backspace key. I would carefully highlight and delete everything that was mucking up the intention within every sentence and every paragraph. To my surprise, when I took up the writer’s oath to “do no harm unto my reader,” I actually became a much better writer. All I did was focus on removing clutter.
In the PR and marketing industry, clutter can get ugly. Some PR agencies lean on mind-numbing jargon. Insecure authors hide behind verbosity, hoping it might cover up the fact that they have so little to say. If they write the same idea, five times, rearranging the buzzwords each time, they pray that maybe the reader will get lulled into submission. This is not good marketing.
If you focus on comprehension, your writing will improve. I promise. I have a few tricks to help you along.
Trick No. 1: Have a point
Clear writing is about clear thinking. You can’t fake it.
You should make your point in the first paragraph. Don’t delay. Everything else supports this main idea. If you’re having trouble finding your main idea, then you need to do a little more research.
Trick No. 2: Try a few short sentences
Have you noticed that your press release is one long sentence after another? Long sentences can be tedious to read, but if you sneak in a short sentence after those long sentences, then the short sentence will have greater impact. It absolutely works. See?
Trick No. 3: Remember the Salt Rule
Think of adjectives and adverbs as salt. Just a pinch will bring out the flavor, but too much will ruin the meal. Identify each adjective and adverb. If it’s not necessary, take it out.
Some businesses trip over themselves in the boilerplate with how “innovative” and “groundbreaking” they are. There isn’t anything wrong with being innovative and groundbreaking, but you should get specific. What did your organization do that was innovative? Tell your customer about that, and let them make the call.
Trick No. 4: Eliminate unnecessary phrases
Certain phrases – such as cute little asides embedded in a sentence – often contribute to the clutter. Does the sentence – and really think about it – still make sense without the extra phrase?
Another problem is the long introductory phrase. In some of my weaker moments as a writer and despite my best efforts, I’m sometimes guilty of this crime.
Trick No. 5: Avoid wordiness
When did we decide that a “sit-down to discuss the operational imperative of our company” was better than a “meeting?” Wordiness is a crime against common sense.
Zinsser’s examples from On Writing Well:
- “At this point in time” simply could be “now.”
- “With the possible exception of” is a cluttered version of “except.”
- “Due to the fact that” should have gone with “because.”
- “Until such time as” is better off as “until.”
- “For the purpose of?” Go with “for.”
Trick No. 6: Ban the buzzwords
I have a list of banned buzzwords posted in my office. I took the list from Content Rules by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman. These are the words I try to avoid whenever possible.
- Instead of “impactful,” try influential or substantial. Powerful is good, too.
- Instead of “leverage” (used as a verb), try influence, exploit, enhance, rely on, or just plain use.
- Instead of “learnings,” use lesson.
- Instead of “synergy” (and its many variations: synergistic, synergism, synergize), try cooperation, help, joint, pooled, or combined effort.
- Instead of “proactive,” try active, anticipate, forestall, or
- Instead of “drill down,” try in-depth or
- Instead of “30,000 feet,” use overview or executive summary.
- Instead of “incenting/incentivizing,” try encourage or provide an incentive.
Trick No. 7: Read it aloud
This one is simple, but absolutely mandatory. When we read aloud what we’ve written, we can often hear how convoluted and unnatural it all sounds. Yes, as a writer, I spend a lot of time talking to myself.
Why is writing still so hard?
To quote David Remnick, “This is not a normal activity. Writing, to do it well, is horribly difficult. It breaks people in half sometimes. I don’t recommend it. But all those things said, there’s no greater pleasure.” Writing is hard, because our ideas don’t always line up conveniently, waiting to be placed onto the blank screen. Our thoughts are squirrelly and rebellious. The words don’t always obey. However, sometimes, our writing can achieve a sublime power. And when it does, it’s a great feeling.