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Weekly 3: Remove needless words


Idea Journal Weekly 3

January 17 · Issue #174 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Needless words muddle your meaning. This issues explores three ideas to help you get to the point when writing and speaking.
(~3 min read)

#1. The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its essential components
In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser suggests that most first drafts can be cut by 50% without losing any information. 
Clutter in writing can take multiple forms: “the unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (‘order up’), or the adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb (‘smile happily’), or the adjective that states a known fact ('tall skyscraper’).”
Zinsser recommends asking the following questions to identify superfluous words in your writing: 
  • Is each word doing new work?
  • Can any thought be expressed more simply? 
  • Are you hanging on to something that isn’t doing new work just because you like the way it sounds? 
One way to test whether a word is clutter is to put a pair of brackets around it, and then reread the sentence as if it weren’t there.
If you’re still able to get your point across without it, then it’s clutter and can be removed.
#2. Respect your reader
Author Josh Bernoff points out that all of the advice in his book Writing Without Bullshit is based on a principle he calls the “Iron Imperative”: Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.
When you cut corners in your writing and don’t think about the reader’s experience, you’re being selfish. As a result, the reader will get frustrated, likely move on to something else, and your message will fail.
But if you help the reader be more efficient, they will think highly of you and come back to you in the future.
Here are three of Bernoff’s tips to help you follow the Iron Imperative and write more effectively:
1. Put the most important point at the topDid you finally figure out what you were trying to say in your email, article, or report? Put that statement at the beginning.
2. Remove duplication: Reread what you wrote and and ask yourself: Have I said the same thing twice? If so, figure out where it belongs and delete the repeated material.
3. Don’t ramble: Instead of easing the reader into your perspective and supporting points, address them right away. A few examples:
  • Less effective: I had a few thoughts about new features on the way to work this morning.
  • More effective: We need to build in GPS, and here’s why.
#3. Replace “umm” with silence
Communications expert Scott Berkun writes in his book Confessions of a Public Speaker that using “filler words” like umm and uhh in normal conversation is acceptable and even encouraged: “You’re letting the people you’re talking to know you are not done speaking.”
But repeatedly saying umm or uhh when you’re giving a presentation or a speech reduces the impact and effectiveness of your message.
As Berkun notes, nothing kills your power over a room as much as a lack of silence.
When you constantly fill the air with sounds, the audience members’ ears never get a break. And if what you’re saying is interesting or persuasive, the audience will need moments of pause in order to digest your points.
The trick is to replace filler words with silence. Just when you’re about to say umm or uhh, make a conscious effort to pause and embrace the silence.
For Berkun, this is a simple and effective way to improve your presentations and speeches.
He suggests that you take inspiration from stand-up comedians: “… about 20-30% of their time on the microphone is spent in silence, often just to let the audience laugh and enjoy the last thing said, or to provide a pacing break to set up the next thing they want to say.”
Quote of the week
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
- Authors William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White in their book The Elements of Style
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