Lean Writing Commands Attention

Power up your writing through wise word choices, lean expression and ruthless editing.Your words will be more powerful if you use fewer of them, choose them wisely and wield them with authority. 

Long-winded, meandering and puffed up prose turns off today's readers who are accustomed to lean expression. Blame it on endless advertising, texting or Ernest Hemingway, most people want to get to the point in as little time and with the least amount of effort as possible.

People are bombarded with messages and, as a result, have little time or patience for loopy or indulgent writing.

Give readers what they want, based on what you know, in an economical package. You both will be happier.

Writing snappy, lucid copy is hard work. It is easier to write something longer with stream-of-conscious syntax. But the toil you put into crafting a few well-written sentences will be rewarded by an audience attracted to read them. Here are nine tips:

1. Subject + Verb + Object

The most basic sentence structure in English starts with a subject and proceeds through a verb and an object — "the team won its game." This order lets you know the who of the sentence and what happened. The sentence is not confusing because it isn't convoluted. Straightforward is good. Yes, you should vary sentence structure to prevent reader fatigue, but short, punchy sentences will keep your readers alert and fascinated.

2. Relevant Detail

The team won its game, but what team, what game and when? This is where relevant detail comes into play — My son's baseball team won its first game last week — provides the reader a succinct summary of the who and the what. Remember you are competing for attention against tweets and texts on smartphones.

3. Interesting Twists

The sentence "My son's baseball team won its first game last week" still leaves some blanks. So why are you telling me about this game? Adding an interesting nugget of information with a clever twist provides the answer — My son's baseball team won its first game last week, even though my 6-year-old ran straight to third base after driving in the winning run with a great hit.

4. Bury Deadwood Phrases

Deadwood phrases that litter sentences, slowing down readers, are one of the biggest stumbling blocks to effective writing. A phrase is deadwood if it doesn't add any meaning or is used to prop up a wayward sentence. If the phrase "the fact that" appears in your writing, immediately stop, slap yourself and rewrite the sentence. It needs it.

5. Use Colorful Verbs and Nouns to Paint Word Pictures

One of the endearing qualities of English is its million-word lexicon. There is a storehouse of verbs and nouns to convey your precise meaning. Don't run to your thesaurus every time you need a zippy verb or telling noun, but select the verb or noun that adds color to the picture of what you mean. Metaphors, stories and analogies provide solid platforms for colorful word choices — The girl is a diva who thinks life is a fashion show.

6. Employ Adjectives and Especially Adverbs Sparingly

Adjectives and adverbs can illuminate the nouns they modify, but as often as not they clog the flow of a sentence. Use adjectives if they enhance the meaning of your subject or object. If they just tag along in the sentence, hit delete on your computer. Avoid the irresistible temptation to plunk an adverb in an awkward spot — as an unnecessary part of a description or, heaven forbid, to separate an infinitive verb form. There are still a few doddering traditionalists who stop reading whenever they encounter a split infinitive.

7. Discard the Aside

Many writers have become fascinated, or perhaps hallucinated, with the use of a dash as a substitute for commas, a crutch for an incomplete sentence or an arm signal for a personal digression. The dash can be a useful soldier in the march toward clarity. Too often, it is recruited for purposes that cloud meaning and impede readership.

8. Edit, Then Edit Some More

Failure to communicate is commonly tied to failure to edit. In his blog about improved writing, Seth Czerepak recommended trimming 25 percent of the words you initially use. That's a worthy goal. Editing take times and demands thought. The entire world still shivers at Lincoln's Gettysburg address, which contained 10 chiseled sentences delivered in five minutes.*

9. Read Your Sentences Aloud

One way to trim fat from your writing is to read them out loud. This is a healthy, natural way to shrink verbiage. If the sentence sounds bloated or you can't get the entire sentence out in a single breath, you know you need to put it on a diet. Reading your writing aloud also will improve your cadence, giving your work a more conversational flow that nurtures reader comprehension. A tip within a tip — good writers write for the ear as well as the eye. Two senses working in tandem are always better than one.

Good writing is more important today than ever. If you want to be heard, make your words command attention through their clarity, color and economy.


 * Nobody remembers the 2-hour oration given by Edward Everett before Lincoln spoke, which began: "Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy."