As professional communicators, it’s our job to write clearly, effectively and (with skill and proper syntax) compellingly. Like with any art, there’s more than enough room for debate on what is “good” and what is “bad.” But as Picasso said, “You must learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”
So here are some rules, hard and fast, on what to avoid and what to embrace on your quest to writing the Great American Novel. Or at least an email that gets a response.
Check clichés at the door
These phrases may have started cleverly enough, but, over time, they’ve been reduced to a crutch for the lazy or uninspired. And if you’re so uninspired to write it, why do you think anyone else will want to read it? A list of the most offensive PR offenders include, but are not limited to:
- Think outside the box
- ‘Tis the season
- At the end of the day
- Needless to say
Everyone goes on and on about how creative they are. Instead of saying it, why not show it with a quick and clever turn of phrase.
Lose the jargon
Fancy words and complicated jargon don’t make you sound smarter. In fact, they have the unfortunate habit of doing the opposite. Smart writers cut straight to the chase. Using clear and concise language, they say what needs to be said, often with as few words as possible. General rule of thumb: avoid most “–izing” words (utilizing, optimizing, monetizing, etc.).
Limit passive voice
Oh passive voice, the bane of English teachers everywhere. It really is the limp handshake of sentence structures. But we should clear up something first. Just because your sentence includes verbs like is, was or were doesn’t mean it’s passive. A passive sentence is when the object of the sentence gets promoted to the subject.
Passive: “Your candy crush requests are avoided by me.”
Active: “I ignore all your candy crush requests.”
Now doesn’t that second one sound so much better? Also, stop sending me candy crush requests.
Say it out loud
If it sounds odd to say aloud, it probably reads just as stilted. Without fail, I catch most typos, odd phrasings and clunky structures when I’m quietly muttering the words to myself.
Figure out your voice and write in it
Whether you realize it or not, we all have a very specific way of communicating. It’s the “voice” you’ve been talking with for your entire lifetime, so why would you change it when it comes to writing? It may take some self-actualization, but once you’ve figured out your voice, write in it. It will be far more personable, natural and perhaps even a more enjoyable experience.
Want to write better? Read more. Read the classics, read nonfiction, read the things that make you laugh. The more you read, the more sensitive you become to what makes a strong sentence, all the while soaking up the phrasings, constructions and figures of speech that will weave their way into your own writing.
A few suggestions:
- Like Water For Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
- How to Cook a Wolf, by MFK Fisher
- A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers
(photo credit: tcjww.org)