We’ve all seen those lists with two columns: the first one consists of dozens of million-dollar “fancy” words like ascertain, circumvent, and endeavor. The second column is a list of ten-dollar “everyday” words—find out, avoid, and try—that are replacements for the fancy ones in the first column. The idea behind this writing tip is that if you use too many fancy words, you’ll sound like a pedant or stuffed shirt. But you need to view and apply these lists with a little common sense. When writing a document, if your Writer’s Intuition tells you that ascertain is the exact right word to use, then use it.
“When we were young and fast and invincible, the Road Runner was our hero. Impervious to danger, the Road Runner ran without tiring, scooted without fear and beep-beeped coolly like a blue James Bond. But as I look down now from this creaking tower of years, I see it was the Coyote who deserved my admiration. That TV show was never about the Road Runner. It was always about the Coyote. The Coyote was determined. Determined is a word much misunderstood. Obstinate people are not determined. They merely suffer from too much pride. Stubborn people are not determined. Stubbornness is willful ignorance. Determination is an unblinking willingness to pay the price as often as it must be paid. Determination is never losing sight of your objective, no matter what comes along to distract you. Determination is endurance. How about you? If Failure appears without warning and throws you onto the rocks below, will you happily crawl out of that smoking crater and go back to work?” Roy H. Williams, author, The Wizard of Ads.
Now… go start that big writing project you’ve been putting off.
“The time to begin writing an article [or any document] is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.” This is Twain’s humorous way of saying “writing is rewriting”—a tip we all know, but is so very hard to put into practice, especially when writing under a deadline. However, the more we hear it and practice it, the better chance this tip will become part of our writing process.
Tip: Don’t overuse the to be verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) or the have verb (have, has, had) in your sentences. When you edit your work, look for any forms of these verbs and replace them with stronger ones. Choose verbs that have specific meanings, so readers aren’t left with vague descriptions. For example, revise “The CEO has a positive effect on our company” to eliminate the weak has verb and revise the sentence so that it describes what the “positive effect” actually is: “The CEO brings strong leadership to our company.” Also, use the present and past tenses of verbs—it keeps your writing more immediate and “in the present”—instead of the present- and past-progressive tenses. For example, replace “She is thinking” with “She thinks” or “He is working” with “He works.”
Mark Twain wrote by following rules. His own. Here is one we should all follow: “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very. Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” This is a humorous way of saying, “Eliminate unnecessary words. Everything you write should be clear and concise.” Words we can all write by.
“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
– C. J. Cherryh
Wordy, convoluted, unclear writing has been a problem for centuries in both the public and private sectors. But the federal government took a big step to address the issue by passing the Plain Writing Act of 2010. Simply put, the Act states that every document a federal employee writes that will be read by a taxpayer must be written in plain English. Here are some of the highlights of the Act:
- The purpose of this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.
- The head of each agency shall designate one or more senior officials within the agency to oversee the agency implementation of this Act, communicate the requirements of this Act to the employees of the agency, and train employees of the agency in plain writing.
- Agencies will also create and maintain a plain writing section of the agency’s website that is accessible from the homepage of the agency’s website.
- Beginning not later than one year after the date of enactment of this Act, each agency shall use plain writing in every document the agency issues or substantially revises.
These two writing tips go hand-in-hand: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” — Louis L’Amour, and “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” ― Jodi Picoult. They are good reminders that when you have writer’s block, and we all do from time to time, you should write something, anything! to get the juices flowing.
1. “A sentence should never be cruel and unusual.” — William C. Burton, attorney
2. “I have made this letter longer that usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.” — Blaise Pascal, mathematician
3. “Clarity begins at home.” — Edie Schwager, speaker with the American Medical Writers Association
4. “The trouble with so many of us is that we underestimate the power of simplicity.” — Robert Stuberg, author and speaker
5. “I never write metropolis for seven cents when I can write city and get paid the same.” — Mark Twain, author
6. “When writing about science, don’t simplify the science; simplify the writing.” — Julie Ann Miller, former editor of Science News
7. “This report, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read.” — Winston Churchill, former British prime minister
8. “All good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. — Anne Lamott, author
9. “Good writing is clear thinking made visible.” — William Wheeler, journalist and author
10. “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne, author
Plain writing (aka, plain language and plain English) is simply another term for clear and concise writing, something writing instructors have been trying to instill in their students for literally centuries. Plain Writing has a number of definitions. One good one is: “A communication is in plain writing if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can readily find what they need, understand it, and use it.” But Albert Einstein—a plain writing master long before the term was coined—made a keen observation that applies to writing and just about every other human endeavor: “Any fool can make things bigger and more complex, but it takes a touch of genius to go in the other direction.”