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Speak Briefly and Carry a Big Stylebook

bumpylight shares his tips and tricks for engaging, concise content.

After an extensive search, I decided on Textbroker as a marvelous opportunity for learning to be a better writer and for collecting a splash or two of beer money. The editors were very kind as I fought to rid my writing of grade-school errors. With much effort and with considerable help from Keira, Melissa and Christina, my skills have at last struggled feebly into the estate of maturity. It is an honor to have been invited to share a few thoughts on the art of writing.

In a world flooded with poorly expressed ideas, brevity and clarity are the golden twins. Style is their urbane little brother, always ready with an amusing quip. Strong sentences linger in the mind and soothe the soul with easy comprehension. Flabby sentences, on the other hand, are verbal mush. They harbor a multitude of extraneous words that mooch like unwashed party crashers, diverting precious attention from clear meanings.

Readers, editors and clients all dislike prolixity. Authors paid by the word are understandably stalked by the temptation to dragoon a host of hobo words into scavenging extra pennies, but a competent writer values efficiency. Hard-working prose delights readers, pleases editors and attracts more orders from happy clients.

The essence of brevity and clarity is to use exactly as many of the right words as needed. A paucity of words can leave a reader confused and irate; an excess of words can leave a reader confused and bored. Brevity and clarity do not march in lockstep. A balance must be found. Adding words may increase comprehension. The trick is to stop when enough words have been added. The essence of good style is choosing words that jiggle and bounce instead of shuffling. Brevity is short; clarity is sweet; style is pretty.

The ability to write effectively with a popular style is acquired largely through voracious reading of popular communications such as novels, short stories, essays and news reports. Referring frequently to dictionaries and thesauri for useful vocabulary words is also helpful. Misusing a word is embarrassing for the author and jarring to readers; overusing a limited vocabulary results in flat prose. Readers enjoy lively prose that draws upon the richness of the English language.

A few stylistic horrors are common among less-experienced authors: "would of," "could of," "because of," "due to" and the overuse of "important." Consider the following sentence:

"It is important to consider many factors when deciding upon an insurance policy."

Compare it to a slightly different version:

"Many factors enter into the decision to trust a particular insurance policy."

The revised sentence doesn't suffer at all from having booted the stuffy word "important."

Verbs and adjectives are the workhorses of style. Strong, clear verbs leave a deeper impression than weak, uncertain verbs. Some articles do call for timid verbs that strive to avoid passion, but these special cases usually are easily identifiable. Legal and medical articles notoriously require weasel words, such as "might be," "is considered," "seems" and "suggests." However, a vigorous voice is generally better. Adjectives are like spices and herbs; too much seasoning will spoil the broth. Temporarily banishing an adjective will often expose it as a hobo word. There is an old rule of thumb for adjectives: "When in doubt, leave it out."

It is true that some assignments are insubstantial enough that it is difficult to complete them without adding material that wanders beyond the instructions. Advertising copy in particular is inherently lightweight, and clients don't always know how to estimate the optimum word count. Depending on the required word count and idea content, sentences and paragraphs can be simplified or made more complex. Still, the ethos of authorial professionalism dictates showing respect for clients by recruiting new ideas whenever possible.

I will discuss three personal struggles with brevity and style that arose during the composition of this essay. First, I included the following sentence at the end of the opening paragraph:

"It seems worth visiting brevity, clarity and style."

I thought it flowed smoothly from a personal introduction. However, Keira correctly pointed out later that this sentence was out of place and lacked conviction. Also, to whom did the topic seem worth visiting? Was I mumbling about myself, or were timorous readers hiding in the broom closet? After thinking about it, I realized that the entire sentence was redundant. After all, the topic makes its appearance in the very next paragraph.

Further on in the essay, I tentatively wrote the following sentence:

"Make no mistake about it: There is simply no substitute for ruthless editing."

The opening phrase sounded nice, but it added nothing of substance. Would the reader really be mistaken about it without a reminder? Out it went:

"There is simply no substitute for ruthless editing."

A hint of flabbiness lingered. Aha! The word "simply" looked to be a badly dressed interloper, filching sushi canapés from the buffet table. Goodbye, fellow:

"There is no substitute for ruthless editing."

The finished sentence delivers its point and immediately makes way for the next entrant in the play.

Finally, I stubbornly tinkered with a superficially meaningful passage:

"Sentences that eagerly set out to prove themselves clever are bad team members, but sentences that quietly set out their purposes and ideas with a minimum of fuss are good team players."

Quite apart from a dawning sense of being mocked by the grinning spirit of irony, it grew clear that this empty shed of words contained but a mere whisper of meaning. I sadly let the fluffy failure blow away in the wind.

In closing, extremely few authors are capable of straightaway producing nearly flawless prose. It is natural for most authors to produce sloppy, duplicative text as part of the thinking process. Retaining sloppy text is self-indulgent, though. The hallmark of a successful author is the willingness to summarily execute entire passages for the crime of redundancy. A beautiful turn of phrase that accomplishes little is ultimately annoying. A self-disciplined author will kill it, mourn it and move on.

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