Writing sharpeners – keeping readers engaged

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‘Just write the way you speak.’ How often do you hear that advice?

That can be fine in an informal situation, but is generally not useful in business and technical writing.

When we speak, we frequently use ‘fillers’ to give ourselves time to think what to say next. Fillers may be as simple as um, you know, I think… or they may be clichés, tautologies, using long-winded or vague phrases (often called waffle), or a ‘posh’ word instead of a simpler one.

When we write, we have more time to consider our words and to review them before sending them off.
In fact, we must if we want our readers to clearly and easily understand our message.

Clichés

These are words and phrases that have been used so much that they’ve lost their real meaning
and their effectiveness.
Generally, clichés have been around for a long time, or they could be the latest techno-speak or management buzz word.
In themselves, there’s nothing wrong with them, but they’ve become boring or taken on an indefinite meaning.

Phrases like:           a window of opportunity                  the bottom line
the greatest thing since sliced bread                move the goalposts

Our aim is to find fresh ways to express our thoughts so that our readers remain engaged with our message.

‘Our bottom line is to minimise disruptions.’ tells a story,
but              Minimising disruptions is our main objective.
is a stronger message that focuses the readers’ attention on the more important part of the sentence.

Tautologies

‘Using more words than necessary to express a thought’, or ‘saying the same thing twice’ are the classic definition of tautology (or pleonasm if you want to show off).
When you really listen, you’ll be able to hear so many tautologies in everyday speaking. Unfortunately, you’ll also read far too many of them.

PIN number (Personal Identification Number number)         free gift           extra bonus
ATM machine (Automatic Teller Machine machine)                   past history                 future plans     proceed forward           5 am in the morning          unite together            true fact
‘when I first began the project…’              new innovations

Waffle

 as a consequence of… (because)         in the event of… (if)           in view of the fact that… (because)
upon the occurrence of… (when)              in the course of… (during)
I was forced to have to…   (I was forced to…   or   I had to…)

  These chemicals are subject to rapid deterioration.   (These chemicals deteriorate rapidly.)
A summary of these findings is given in Table 16.   (Table 16 summarises these findings.)
Tissue sample dissection was performed.   (The tissue sample was dissected.)

Reducing waffle and long-windedness sharpens your writing and takes your readers to the crux of your message in the most direct way – without being brusque or rude, of course.

Posh words

My general ‘rule’ is to choose a simpler word if there is one.

 utilise (use)         endeavour (try)             initialise (begin)          transmit (send)
fabricate (make)          ascertain (find out)

Of course, it’s fine if you’re using a word in its technical sense where it has a specific meaning.

Keep your writing clear, engaging and sharp.
Make sure you review before you send.
Focus on your readers.

I’d love you to add to my collection Writing Sharpeners – either more of the ones I’ve mentioned or other tips that will help business and technical writers.

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20 thoughts on “Writing sharpeners – keeping readers engaged

  1. I havent dropped by for a while but this post is a great reminder of the importance of being able to switch styles. I write less waffly on my blog than I do for work, I always thought my work writing helped me with the blog but maybe its the other way around!

    • Lovely to have you here again, Charley.

      The style we choose depends on our audience, doesn’t it? And the time-factor also plays a significant part.

      I know I stop reading if something doesn’t engage me very early, or if it seems too long (unless, of course, it’s something I must read).

      All good writing comes from understanding the best way to share your message clearly for your readers.

      Looking forward to your next post.

  2. Before I first begin my comment here in this space…. I couldn’t resist! 😉

    Having lived in a country where English (my first language) is not the local/first language AND having to write training content so that it is clear and complete has meant I learnt to quickly drill down to the simple and straightforward. Getting to the point is something I aim for however I’m guilty of carrying the tautology-disease.

    I am fast becoming one of your biggest fans, Desolie. The examples you provide help smooth the challenges I have when it comes to writing.

    • Thanks, Sally, I appreciate your support.

      Thanks for providing such a great example of the importance of simplicity in our writing.

      As for those tautologies… it’s surprising just how frequently they occur.

      What other writing challenges would you like me to blog about?

      • Writing challenges for possible blog posts:
        – Getting started
        – How to be concise without jeopardising the ‘engaging’ and ‘sharp’
        – What an editor can do for you
        – What to look for in an excellent editor
        … just a few ideas straight off the top of my head… 🙂

  3. Great tips Desolie. I find myself using corporate speak, having spent so many years writing in that environment.

    I’m interested in your views about using simple language. I think it depends on your audience / target market. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using what you term a “posh” word if it’s used correctly and with the reader’s level of comprehension in mind.

    That said, I’d bet very few, if anyone ever use the Google advanced search to sort by “Reading Level” and then choose “Advanced”. I also bet that pages with simple words, short sentences and good content rank higher than those using lots of posh words 😉

    • Thanks Suellen. You’re right about using ‘posh’ words: it depends upon the audience. But is there really anything to be gained by using ‘utilise’ instead of ‘use’ ?

      It’s very easy to slip into the way of speaking of a particular group. I sometimes wonder if the speaker or writer really knows what they’re talking about, or are they simply following the crowd.

      It’s always refreshing to read clear, engaging and sharp writing amidst the millions of words in the public domain.

  4. I love the Tautologies ~ Its so funny when you see them pointed out – But they’ve become a part of our language – particularly marketing language where the ‘extra’ emphasis is laid down – A marketing gift wouldn’t be a gift if it wasn’t a FREE gift or a bonus an EXTRA bonus LOL
    Language evolving before our eyes 😉

    • Yes, I think you’re right about the infuence of marketing, Linda, although headline writers provide quite a few as well. It’s about grabbing the readers’ attention.

      And so many cliches and tautologies have become so usual that we don’t stop to think about them when we’re writing.

      Language will continue to change – my challenge as an editor is to find the balance between the old and the new.

    • It takes constant vigilance (or is that a tautology?) to keep from falling into those traps, especially when writing quickly.

      And it’s so easy to publish before taking the time to review.

      But I appreciate writing friends like you who give gentle nudges when I don’t meet my own standards.

      Happy writing and successful blogging 🙂

  5. Another great post Desolie.

    The most difficult lesson for me, has been unlearning the ‘art of jargon’, or political waffle.

    After fifteen years of writing spin in government, jargon, fillers and waffle became a difficult habit to break.

    I’m satisfied with my writing style, but regularly have to catch myself casting off those bad habits.

    Warm regards D
    @CatherineWPhoto

    • Thanks Catherine.

      Developing new habits is always a challenge. I have to remind myself to consider my readers, not assume anything about their basic familiarity with my subject, and do whatever I can to make my message clear.

      What did you do to help you break those habits?

    • Hi Hari

      It’s an important reminder that we write for our readers, not to show off our writing skills.

      Great to see you follow those principles in your blog posts.

    • Lovely to have you drop by again, Pam, and I truly appreciate your support.

      It’s always worthwhile taking another look at how we write and how lazy we can become – I was very tempted to use some cliches in the post just to see if anyone would notice.

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