I’ve known Jay Croft for 30-something years. He is a former staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and has worked in corporate communications for Coca-Cola, among other well-known brands. He is now engaged in freelance consulting work. More to the point, he is one of the best writers I know. Among the reasons: he is economical with his words.
I asked him if I could cut and paste one of his recent blog posts because it touches on just that aspect of his writing. Sometimes what you leave out is as important as what goes in. Take it away, Jay. — Clay
Do you want to be a stronger writer?
Of course you do. Everyone writes so much these days — at school, work and home. And who would say, “No, thank you. I don’t want to write better.”
Think of it like this. At the start of every new year, many people resolve to lose weight, so they join a gym, maybe even hire a trainer. Now, what if we decide to cut the fat from our writing this year? To stop using words and phrases that slow down our copy or confuse the reader — or just take more space than is necessary.
So you want to get buff, lose the flab, and strengthen your core? Bravo! But just like physical fitness, this is a commitment to caring about “the little things” over a long period.
Here are 17 words and phrases to stop using now if you want your writing to be stronger and leaner. No matter if you’re in business, the media, school or government, your writing should be clear, compelling and useful. Some words and phrases make that impossible. Clichés, overused jargon and useless words like “very” weigh down any message. …
Try this: Notice how often you write these words or others like them. Then, just once or twice, delete them. See if you haven’t improved your writing — made it leaner and meaner. Then flex your new writing muscles by choosing action verbs; using fewer adverbs and adjectives; and removing phrases that keep sneaking back into the text.
Weak: Your boss says, “When revising our strategy report, we need to be sure we align with the CEO, the CMO, HR and Legal.”
Strong: If you’re in an office where “align” gets used more than it should, just remember to keep your language simple and free of words that corporate communicators use without thinking. “Let’s be sure everyone agrees on our plan.”
Weak: The obituary reads, “The iconic singer had a hit in 1974 that was used in a commercial for a popular recreational vehicle, then retired and was never heard from again.”
Strong: Just delete it, most times. It doesn’t mean notable or important, and not everyone who is famous is an icon. Not every brand is iconic or should even aspire to be. The word has become so overused, typically when talking about entertainers, that it has seeped into business writing and everyday correspondence.
Weak: The student writes that his subject is “very sad.”
Strong: The teacher suggests “morose,” instead. (Hats off to “Dead Poets Society.”)
- Each and every one
Weak: The boss thanks “each and every one of you” for your hard work on this project.
Strong: “Thank you, everyone.”
Weak: “This is the most unique program we’ve come up with ever.”
Strong: Unique means one of a kind. It can not be modified. Also, your program might be great in many ways, but it is probably not unique. And it is absolutely not “the most unique.”
Weak: “Before you make your presentation to the board, be sure you’re clear what your ask is.”
Strong: Ask is verb, not a noun. And in today’s corporate settings, it’s a losing battle to ask that people stop using it as a noun when they speak. So don’t even try. But never let it into text. If you have a request, then you ask for it. Simple.
Weak: “Let’s utilize the best examples.”
Strong: “Let’s use the best examples.” Almost always, “use” is better than “utilize.” In the “lean vs. fat” writing debate, it means a lot. Like eating ice cream after a healthy dinner and expecting to lose weight.
Weak: A job listing for a writer-editor says the company is looking for a communicator who can also “ideate.”
Strong: We need a writer and editor who also can help us think creatively about how to approach the work.”
Weak: In a team meeting, your boss tells everyone to think about the “cadence of your outreach to potential new clients.”
Strong: “Think about how often you’re going to call people.”
- Emergency situation
Weak: The TV reporter says breathlessly, “Police are saying the violence is an emergency situation.”
Strong: It’s an emergency. Every emergency is a situation.
- “Think” or “Believe” or “Feel”
Weak: “I think (or believe or feel) that it’s a good plan.”
Strong: “It’s a good plan.”
- “Reach out” and “Circle back” and “touch base”
Weak: “Be sure to reach out first and then circle back.”
Strong: “Call or write him.”
Weak: “The new ‘Bachelor’ on TV is so amazing. He’s so cute it’s amazing. The sunset is so amazing.”
Strong: Do not watch “The Bachelor.”
Weak: “We are implementing an innovative process that will drive our value-added differentiator…”
Strong: It’s probably not innovative. Calling it innovative undermines whatever legitimate excitement there might be about your “value-added differentiator,” which leads us to…
Weak: “We need to stress our differentiators in the marketplace.”
Strong: Tell people what makes you better than your competitors.
- “Just” or “really” or “a lot”
Weak: “I just want to tell you I really liked your presentation a lot.”
Strong: “I liked your presentation.”
- “In order”
Weak: “Arrive early in order to open the booth on time.”
Strong: “Arrive early to open the booth on time.”
Jay Croft has many more storytelling tips on his blog, storycroft.com/blog/