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Weekly 3: Tools for better writing

Summary: Cut the bullshit. Solve problems in your writing by deleting them. Be more active -- and hum

Idea Journal Weekly 3

May 13 · Issue #34 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Cut the bullshit. Solve problems in your writing by deleting them. Be more active – and human. (~4 min read)
Happy Mother’s Day!

#1. To communicate more effectively, 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 4 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.
4. In an email, match the subject line to the content: Ask yourself: If all they read is the subject line, will I still have communicated something useful? A few examples: 
  • Less effective: Some more thoughts about the release
  • More effective: Why we can’t release the product yet
#2. Your best ally for solving writing problems may be the delete key.
Author and teacher William Zinsser suggests in his book On Writing Well that the best solution to a difficult problem in a sentence is often to simply remove it.
Unfortunately, “it is usually the last one that occurs to writers in a jam.”
Before then, the writer will put the troublesome phrase through all kinds of exertions: moving it to some other part of the sentence, adding new words to clarify the thought or to “oil whatever is stuck.”
But these efforts frequently make the situation worse, and the writer is left with the uncomfortable thought that there is no solution.
When you’re at such an impasse, Zinsser recommends asking yourself: Do I need it at all?
Probably not: “It was trying to do an unnecessary job all along – that’s why it gave you so much grief.”
Note: We wrote about another one of Zinsser’s helpful writing tips, using brackets to remove clutter, in a previous issue.
#3. Make your writing more readable by being more personal.
Joel Raphaelson and Kenneth Roman, authors of the book Writing That Works, recommend using the active voice because it “improves your writing by making it more personal, a human being talking rather than an institution.”
The passive voice hides who is speaking or taking action; the active voice reveals it.
Here are some examples:
  • Instead of this: He should be told.
  • Try this: Get Alice to tell him.
  • Instead of this: Personal sacrifices are being made, although the degree of participation is not absolutely identifiable.
  • Try this: We see people making sacrifices. How many people? We can’t say for sure.
  • Instead of this: It is respectfully requested that you send a representative to our conference.
  • Try thisWithout a representative from your company, our conference would be …
Note: We explored a similar topic, writing like you talk, in a previous issue.
Quote of the Week
“When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of you having said it are only fair.”
- William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White in their book The Elements of Style
Idea Journal
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