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3 easy steps to weight loss (for your writing)

July 14, 2011

I remember the time I realised I wasn’t a perfect writer.

Well, that’s untrue; I didn’t actually realise it – I was informed of it. Accepting it came later.

I was working on a big, important proposal with a couple of my colleagues. We put our heart and soul into that document, not to mention countless drafts of writing.

We finally gave it to the boss, and his words were, ‘this is shit’.

WTF? We were clever, young PR pros. We were great writers. How could it be shit?

I see now that I was at a point where I’d mastered the basics of writing. But I was still too flowery and wordy. Still not crisp and direct. I was good, but not great.

(Which isn’t to say I’m ‘great’ now, but I will say I’m less ‘shit’).

Now that I spend a lot of time editing other people’s work, I see that they usually need to lose some weight. The extra padding around your words distracts readers and makes their job of reading that little bit harder.

Strunk and White are obsessive about this. They say:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences …. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” (And don’t you just love their fearless use of the subjunctive?)

So, it requires time and attention to put your writing on a diet. (Although not as much willpower as a normal diet; indeed, chocolate is encouraged). Here are 3 ways you can lose those extra pounds.

1. Get rid of redundant words.

Some are obvious, e.g. ‘free gift’. Others don’t jump out as a tautology, but closer inspection reveals repetition. I found myself writing ‘potential risk’ yesterday – but all risks are potential, as they are yet to happen!

‘Innovative technology’ isn’t wrong, as such, but if you are talking about new technology, we can all assume it is the result of some innovation. Think about whether two words can be cut to one.

2. Get rid of modifying words.

Job applications seem to be a magnet for adjectival abuse. Everyone is ‘extremely excited’ or ‘highly experienced’. Hyperbole, much?

‘Extreme’ is overused anyway – few situations genuinely deserve that description.  And some things should never be modified, such as ‘totally unique’ (it’s unique or it’s not; just like you’re pregnant, or you’re not).

Particularly in business writing, adjectives should be used sparingly. ‘A very strong case’ should be ‘a strong case’ – the modifier adds nothing but clutter.

And on a side note, please avoid exaggeration. Are you truly ‘delighted’ to respond to an invitation? Is your life that dull?

3. Get rid of extra words.

Why say ‘he is able to apply’, when ‘he can apply’ is simpler and shorter? I’m often guilty of these extra sneaky words. I first wrote the phrase in the paragraph above as, ‘there are few situations that truly deserve’. On review, I managed to cut two words, with no injury to the meaning or expression.

Those words all add up, just like the calories add up, every time you ‘tidy up’ the edge of the ice-cream.

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One Comment
  1. Thanks for the post Belinda – enjoyed it very much. I strongly identify with this topic in my PR journey so far. It is not always easy to cut favourite phrases, or ‘flowery’ language from my writing habits – but I can already see the positive results after a very short time of work here. Hopefully the crafting of my words gets better with each new piece I write.


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