You’ve heard this old adage: Never call “Help” in a crowded street while trying to explain a problem to passersby. People will simply ignore you, mistaking you for a crank, a crackpot, or a crook. Instead, the police advise you to yell, “Fire.” A short shout that appeals to self-interest gets attention.
The same proves true in writing emails, proposals, reports, or sales copy in today’s marketplace. Make your communication concise if you intend to get read.
Business and technical writing reeks with fat. Trimming clichés, redundancies, little-word padding, and weak-verb padding will make your writing emphatic and crisp. But finding the fat in your own work can be exacting.
Tip 1: Eliminate Redundancies and Clichés
If you feel the phrase “roll off your tongue” “with little or no effort” (as the last two phrases just rolled off mine), that’s a clue that you’re using a cliché.
Sentences that incorporate redundant words and ideas are harder to recognize. For instance, continue on. To continue means to go on; when you add the on, you’re stuttering. “If you can’t spell ‘accommodations,’ run the spellchecker to verify it.” The entire last idea is redundant: “If you can’t spell ‘accommodations,’ run the spellchecker.”
Little-word padding also clutters and dilutes messages.
The number of shifts worked could be attributed to various factors such as market size, labor problems, and management philosophy.
The number of shifts worked could be attributed to market size, labor problems, and management philosophy.
They talked in terms of time and money.
They talked about time and money.
Attached is a copy of the form that must be completed in advance before they will give us the service.
Attached is a copy of the form to be completed before service.
Redundancy in a document is much like stuttering in a speech—both detract from the ideas being presented. That is not to say that all repetition is bad; some writers repeat key phrases and ideas to serve as transitions between parts of a document and to reemphasize major points. But redundancy is needless repetition, which has no place in effective writing.
Tip 2: Revise Weak Verbs
Spice bland writing with potent verbs. Some writers make a timid attempt to jump into their subjects with weak verb constructions such as there is, there are, it is, it was.
Weak: There were some objections voiced during the meeting.
Strong: Some voiced objections during the meeting.
Weak: It is difficult to maintain movable equipment.
Strong: Maintaining movable equipment is difficult.
Weak: This is a product line that will excite our customers.
Strong: This product line will excite our customers.
Of course, you can’t revise all such weak verb constructions; alternatives may sound awkward. But prefer a strong verb to command the reader’s attention.
McNamara popped a fly to center field. Ted Brown plucked the ball out of the air and hurled it toward home plate, but not in time to catch Bill Frosh sliding in for the score. In the meantime, Juan Salinas raced toward second, plowing into Lenny Davis and bloodying his nose. In the shuffle, Max Silverton sprinted toward third, edging Frank Mahoney out of the running for most stolen bases of the season.
Okay, so sportswriters sometimes get carried away, but they have the right idea.
Tip 3: Prefer Active-Voice Verbs
Voice refers to the relationship of a verb to its subject. Active voice means that the subject of the sentence does the action of the sentence. Passive voice means that the subject of the sentence receives the action.
Passive: The study was completed by our investigators.
Active: Our investigators completed the study.
Passive: The terms can be negotiated at a later date.
Active: Hillary can negotiate terms at a later date.
Passive: Your business is sincerely appreciated.
Active: We sincerely appreciate your business.
Passive voice creates a lackluster, stilted, impersonal tone. Thus the term “passive.” Active voice, on the other hand, sounds alive, personal, demanding. Thus the term “active.” And the biggest drawback? Passive voice often omits people and who does what in business writing is usually important.
Passive voice also lengthens sentences, on average, by 15 to 50 percent.
Passive: Separate requisitions should be prepared by each buyer.
Active: Each buyer should prepare separate requisitions. (6 words)
Passive: The investigation has been concluded by our client, and the paperwork has been signed. (14 words)
Active: Our client has concluded the investigation and signed the paperwork. (10 words)
So what’s the big concern if your sentence has 17 words rather than seven? Nothing—if you write only one sentence. But if you habitually ramble when you write, you waste your time and the reader’s time.
Worse, your reader may miss your point—or click “Delete” before deciding to take the action you want.
Dianna Booher, an expert in effective communications, founded Booher Consultants in 1980. Dianna has written more than 40 books in the fields of business communication and productivity. Her latest books include Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think, and Act Like a Leader and Communicate with Confidence, Revised Edition. As a high-caliber keynote speaker who inspires audiences worldwide, Dianna delivers focused speeches and training programs to address specific communication challenges.