Q: My new boss says my reports are wordy and confusing and I need to focus on concise writing. Expressing myself when I’m speaking is no problem, but as I prepare myself to type I get anxious that I won’t appear intelligent or formal enough, so I often use larger words and seem to over-explain. What can I do to improve?
A: The bad news is, the boss is right. The good news is, your malady is common and curable. Lots of people who speak perfectly well freak out when they start writing by thinking of it as Writing, with a capital W, to signify Weighty and Worrisome. They whip out the thesaurus in a quest for polysyllabic glory. They cram multiple thoughts into single sentences. They overreach for eloquence and achieve verbosity instead.
There’s nothing wrong with big words or complex sentence structure, if (it’s a big if) they don’t reduce clarity. But most often they do. To avoid this trap and achieve concise writing:
- Pretend you are writing (lower case w) to a good friend who needs this information. You aren’t showing off, you’re just being helpful.
- Keep each sentence short by expressing only one thought (okay, two if you must).
- Ask a friend to read what you’ve written and flag any parts she had to read twice to understand. Rewrite those parts using simpler words and sentences.
Here’s another example to consider. It’s from Elliot Harrison at www.NFL.com, writing about our Philadelphia Eagles. In our opinion, this goes in the Hall of Fame for overly-complicated writing: “The 2011 season looked like it was slipping away a couple of weeks ago. The fat lady had Doritos in her mouth and just needed to finish chewing before singing.”
We dig groovy allusions, but here Harrison presents us with an awkward literal interpretation of a metaphor – a figure of speech never meant to be taken literally. Reader train of thought: “A fat lady is about to swallow some Doritos. She is in a state nearing readiness for singing. Since the saying goes, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” something is about to end. Oh, he thinks the Eagles season looks to be over.”
Holy goalpost! If readers have to parse your sentence and root around for meaning, the metaphor you are mangling is too tortured for publication. Kill it and put it out of its misery.
- DON’T overthink and overwork your writing. Simple can be much more effective than complicated.
- DO keep your focus on clarity. Use all the metaphors, allusions and literary tricks you want, as long as they enhance your reader’s understanding.