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What yuppies can teach you about writing

May 6, 2011

I’m on holiday in Bali, and was wondering what it could teach me about writing. Then I picked up a menu in a Kuta cafe, and was encouraged to share a ‘decadent’ iced coffee with ‘my favourite group of yuppies’.

But this isn’t a post about the perils of translation. It’s about the temptations of over-writing.

Over-writing is the same as over-seasoning your cooking. You cram in too many flowery words. You choose the word ‘yuppies’ instead of ‘friends’. You declare rather than suggest.

And I, the reader, get bored and tune out.

The tourist industry, particularly here in the land of spas and massages, has an unhealthy addiction to over-writing: words like sumptuous, bliss, and divine are piled on top of each other, so that a foot massage ends up sounding like an out-of-body experience.

Look, they do a good massage here, but I haven’t quite reached an Eat, Pray, Love-style nirvana yet.

One of the dangers of over-writing is that it over-promises too. If your product really is ‘ground-breaking’, ‘innovative’ or ‘best-in-class’, then its features will tell me this. You don’t have to. And if it isn’t any of these things, I will work that out too.

After all, when Apple originally launched the iPod , they didn’t need to claim it was ‘innovative’. They just said, ‘10,000 songs in your pocket’. We all knew it had never been done before.

A couple of years ago, Tom Buchan (the boss) told me we should stop using adjectives in our writing. He didn’t mean it literally (Tom has a flair for the dramatic).

But it sounded, at the time, like an awful constraint that would ruin all my writing.

When I considered it, however, I realised that in business, there is little need for descriptives. You’re making a point about a product, service or insight. You are not writing a novel.

So, when you read your sentences back to yourself, consider whether you need every qualifier you’ve used. And has it been used to describe something else… say, your competitor’s product? Because unless you’re Apple, you probably aren’t that ‘ground-breaking’.

And perhaps you are ‘results-oriented’, but if you’re not, who would do business with you? It’s not really a point of difference. So, rather than telling me, show me. Include a case study or two. Let your results speak for themselves.

And when all else fails, grab one of your favourite yuppies, and relax over a decadent, sumptuous and delicious iced coffee.

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