How to Say Nothing With a Lot of Words

ImageAs promised, we're celebrating both Valentine's Day and the Year of the Dog with a special issue packed with puppy love, pooch pics and a bit of doggerel. But we'd be remiss in our duty if we didn't seize the opportunity to offer a bit of textual obedience training.

Think of this article as a rolled-up newspaper wielded with love. When we smack you for making a mess, it's for your own good.

Devotees of Editorializing have no doubt perused the helpful hints offered in successive installments of "Don't Be a Homonym-rod," absorbed the myriad tips proffered in The Red Pen Diaries and Vocab Lab, and browsed the appalling gaffes chronicled in the Not Our Clients section with mouth agape.

But if you think bad writing is just about mistakes, well, that dog won't hunt.

Now that we've called your attention to some common errors of usage, it's time to sniff out what we at EE like to call the Several Habits of Highly Uninteresting Writers.

Long-Winded = Out of Breath

Do your sentences chase their own tails? Are they weighed down with tortured, rambling digressions? Clogged with extraneous verbiage? Larded with gratuitous descriptions or overly formal diction?

You need to simplify, my friend. Too often, in sales sheets, Web pages and press kits, businesses and brand-builders strain to sound sophisticated — and invariably achieve the opposite effect. Tripping over complicated syntax and tangled up in high-flown vocabulary, they resemble nothing so much as a groom with his tux on backwards. Simplicity and directness in communication are to be embraced, as long as your message comes through and you sound like yourself.

Try this: When you've written a draft of a letter, press release or other document, read it aloud. Is it clear? Could it be boiled down? Odds are you can remove a lot of useless words and get to the point more quickly. Does it sound like you? If not, imagine you're writing an e-mail to someone you trust — someone who "gets" you and your business — and you'll often find that the fat trims itself.

Repetition Compulsion

I recently read this about a gifted young singer on his official, major label-produced Web site:
The thirteen tracks of [artist's name] announce the arrival of a major new talent with a flair for infusing the familiar and beloved music with a fresh, original and utterly unique sensibility entirely his own.
Let's set aside the unnecessary "the" before "familiar" and get to the meat — the description that will perhaps motivate a fan's discovery, or at the very least crystallize the vocalist's style in one's mind. What we've got, apart from the expected claim that this fella is a major new talent, is essentially the same idea expressed four times: "fresh," "original," "unique" and "entirely his own." Any one of these would have been
Writing about music may be tantamount to dancing about architecture, but if you're going to attempt it, the least you can do is get on the dancefloor.
adequate, though it would be helpful to know what makes this performer so fresh. But this is hype running on fumes; bereft of the ability, time or inclination to convey a sense of this performer's individuality, the author of this piece humped the same note a few different ways and called it a day.

Given the creative versatility of the artist, it's far less than he deserves. Writing about music may be tantamount to dancing about architecture (to cite a hoary truism), but if you're going to attempt it, the least you can do is get on the dancefloor.

Change It Up

Your instinct may be to err on the side of simplicity, and there's nothing wrong with short, declarative sentences. But short, declarative sentences shouldn't be overused. Clipped sentences stint on information. They can be choppy. They have no grace. They don't sing. People tire of them. They become oppressive.

Admit it: You were already starting to nod off there, weren't you? The repetition of the same phrase is tiresome, yes, but deploying the same sentence structure over and over creates a lulling rhythm that can only be described as soporific. Again, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with short sentences; they can be a wonderful tool for making a statement or creating drama. Just don't stack them up like cordwood or soon your reader will be sawing wood.

Clearly, it pays to be mindful of how long your sentences are — not by tabulating word counts for each, but by being sensitive to their flow. Note, for example, how an em-dash punctuates a sentence — it adds a certain emphatic intensity. Bridging two clauses with a semicolon, meanwhile, implies a connection but allows the reader to take a mental breath; the ideas are closely linked (one following naturally from the next) but freestanding.

As you can see, good writing involves more than avoiding errors. Taking care to be both clear and varied in your language and sentence structure will yield huge dividends as you define — and refine — your message.

We'll have more stylistic treats for you next time. But right now you need to go out and catch a Frisbee.