What’s With the Hieroglyphics, ‘Merica? 5 Tips For Writing With Real Words
Get out your iPhone or your stone slab. We write with pictures now.
When a friend told me recently that the youth these days use emojis to build phrases, like how we use words to make a sentence, my response was, “Really? Are we going back to hieroglyphics?”
I checked in with my 20-something cousin, and apparently this is a sensation that has been sweeping the nation for a while. A tech recruiter I know describes emoji conversations as “an interpretive dance.” These artful statements may send the correct message or they may not. It’s all about interpretation.
(Photo Credit: photommo/Flickr)
Since I’m a stickler for clarity, I prefer to use words to express my words. This preference is getting old-school quickly, and the trend towards short, now image-based, communication may be hampering the development of a once highly prized skill: excellent written communication.
In a recent study on job skills from PayScale, Leveling Up: How to Win in the Skills Economy, 44 percent of managers surveyed listed writing proficiency as the hard skill most lacking in their employees. Writing just barely beat out public speaking (39 percent), another skill directly related to smart communication.
I won’t bemoan the situation or harp on (I mean, throw shade at) a generation raised with more smartphone savvy than penmanship practice. I understand it’s easier to text than dip your feather quill in some ink and hire a pigeon. But all the time spent bent over a phone screen reading shorter copy means less time spent writing and reading full sentences. And that lack of exposure takes a toll.
The Goal Is Tight Copy
I teach writing skills to professionals who want to improve their speed and quality. According to PayScale’s study, sadly, I have many years of job security ahead.
Let’s be real. Few people are trained in writing beyond college or, in many cases, high school. Plus, skimming Chaucer and busting out a 1,500-word essay on his contributions to the English language at 3 a.m. isn’t the best practice for the real world.
When I teach, I talk a lot about making copy “tight.” Specifically, having a worthwhile point and making it as easy as possible for your reader to get that point. We live in a “pan and scan” world where readers won’t work hard to uncover your genius. You need to make it clear to them, and fast.
What are some qualities of “tight” writing? It is specific and has no bloat. Bloat can come in the form of redundant phrases, extra words, or meandering monologues. Get out the scissors, because you’ll likely need to cut some things to get your copy tight.
To quote a writer who probably would have enjoyed emojis as much as we do, “I’d have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” This quote is attributed by some to Mark Twain. Whoever said it had a great sense of humor and understood the challenge of brevity.
I’ve created a list of tips below to help you along the way toward tightening up your copy. Above all else, my friends in writing, keep this standard in mind: If someone needs to read a phrase twice to “get it,” that phrase needs work. It’s not them, it’s you.
5 Tips for Tighter Copy
1. Eliminate Adverbs
Are you determined to drive home an idea? Then, you’re likely willing to work extremely, impressively, and tremendously hard to impart your wisdom.
Did you notice all those italicized words with “ly” at the end? Those need to go. They are adverbs modifying the verb “work.” Adverbs pop up in business copy as a way of providing emphasis, e.g. “easily leverage,” “effortlessly update,” and “totally disrupt.” Kill them. Toss them out. They make you sound desperate and stimulate a boredom response in your reader.
“Willing to work hard” would suffice in the sentence above.
2. Find the Sizzle
Business-speak has a bad reputation. Why? Because it’s boring. Too often people write in generalities and it’s impossible to tease out the point of what you’re reading. For example, “When you utilize the cutting-edge capabilities of our newest technologies, designed for innovators, you can level-up and embrace money-making opportunities on a global scale.”
Be specific. Provide useful details. What’s hot like grease on a griddle? Give that to your reader.
I present my rewrite of the sentence above. It offers useful information to the reader, speaks to their worries, and gets straight to the benefits of the product. Voila, la sizzle.
“Why are you missing out on lucrative deals with global clients? It’s your software. It doesn’t connect to the cloud. It doesn’t integrate with other systems. And investing one more minute in trying to reconfigure it is a waste of your time.”
Wow, I hear the grease popping. Now I’m scared. Now I’m interested. Please tell me more, oh helpful, knowledgeable writer.
3. Remove Transition Words
So, when you’re writing you don’t need transition words. Therefore, get rid of them. Turns out, your reader is bright enough to make connections without them.
Please allow me to make this point another way.
When you’re writing you don’t need transition words. Get rid of them. Your reader is bright enough to make connections without them.
4. Use Yummy Words
Like the thick, homemade frosting piled high on a cupcake, yummy words bring us joy. The response is instinctual, primal. You don’t have to beg people to feel happy reading yummy words, they just do.
Examples of yummy words include discover, bright, empathy, enjoy, peace of mind, fun, collaborate, Care Bears (that’s true for most of us), smart, clever, playful, sunshine, and cookies. I really like cookies. See? Cookies. You’re feeling that joy right now, aren’t you?
5. Don’t Repeat Words
You think you’re cool. You think you don’t repeat yourself. But, welcome to life as a human, you repeat yourself. We can’t help it. We hear a word, we use a word. We pause and, on the tip of our tongue, there it is again.
Sometimes, the repeats are tricky. I hope to notice when I’ve failed to notice a repeat. But, other times I make light of a topic as I shed light on it and find I’m a repeat-a-saurus. Beware, writing ones, you must read carefully for repeats and get out your leather-bound thesaurus to dig for synonyms. Do it. Books are cool.
Keep on Writing With Words
I have so much more advice for you, like avoid superlatives because they’re the worst! And, eliminate exclamation points while you’re at it!!! Otherwise you’re waving your arms desperately at your reader to get their attention. Attract them, instead, with useful information explained clearly. I like to call it “allure.” Go for allure. Your reader will find it very sexy.
And, since a girl’s gotta keep up, I leave you with the following:
Tell Us What You Think
What’s your writing pet peeve? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.