good writing

Getting to the Point by Scrapping Padded Prose

Padded prose clogs up the message you want to deliver to your audience. Choose words wisely and make each one count. Lean language is more audience-friendly and likely to inform, impress and persuade people.

Padded prose clogs up the message you want to deliver to your audience. Choose words wisely and make each one count. Lean language is more audience-friendly and likely to inform, impress and persuade people.

Padded prose is a good way to bore, confuse or frustrate readers. So why do writers keep wasting keystrokes and tempting the patience of their audiences?

It’s not ignorance. Any book about effective writing encourages lean language. Writing instructors are blunter in their advice – “say what you mean, and no more.”

“In old baseball films, pitchers would execute an absurd, double-rocking windup before throwing the ball. The extra histrionics did nothing but bore the crowd and sap their own energy,” writes Ron Reinalda. “Similarly, today’s writers toss in superfluous phrases before making a point. Readers have no use for them, and they waste everyone’s time.”

In his blog for ragan.com, Reinalda provides a list of verbal “culprits.” It’s a long list, but it would have to be even longer to cover the entire wasteland of superfluity. Here’s a few of his most wince-inducing bugaboos: 

  • Not surprisingly – “If it’s not surprising, why mention it?”

  • Never forget that – Readers will decide whether it’s forgettable or not.

  • The truth is – “Is revealed truth or just a truism?” Or just a lazy transition?

  • The fact of the matter is – Ugh. Just spit out the “fact.”

  • I want to start off by saying – “Too late. You started off by clearing your throat.

There are other page-wasters that add no meaning while exasperating the reader. My short list includes:

  • The fact that – The fact is you should rewrite your sentence and leave out this useless and clunky phrase.

  • In order to – The infinitive form of a verb can do this job without any help. (“To support” rather than “In order to support”)

  • Literally – This has become the new “like” and “you know” in speech and writing. When used correctly, this is helpful adverb. Most of the time, it is used as a crutch or exclamation mark.

Dead wood in sentences is just part of the problem. As Reinalda points out, “Many writers don’t get to the damn point.” At times, it seems writers don’t know what point they are trying to make, which can make superfluous phrasing all the more irritating.

If you rationalize flabby prose by pointing to your “conversational style” or “old habits,” you are off base. Flabby speech is as cringe-worthy as flabby prose. You can drop old habits, pretty much like you have with rotary phones and DVDs.

Your writing should matter, so write like it matters. Spend time thinking about what you want to say, master your topic so you know what’s important and then commit your thoughts to words – words that tell your story, explain your point of view or share valuable information and no more.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

 

 

Attack Readers with Your Best Fact First

Attack your readers with a powerful opening line that contains your best fact first. Unlike Snoopy in Charles Schulz's classic Peanuts comics, that means identifying your best fact and finding the most engaging way to say it.

Attack your readers with a powerful opening line that contains your best fact first. Unlike Snoopy in Charles Schulz's classic Peanuts comics, that means identifying your best fact and finding the most engaging way to say it.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” may be the best opening line of a novel in English literature. It should be a reminder of the importance of getting your best fact first in what you write.

The opening line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities sets the stage for the sharp contrasts that make the story compelling. It reinforces and adds dimension to the book title. The reader has a major cue for what to expect.

Many contemporary writers, including ones who write white papers, blogs and op-eds, don’t follow Dickens’ example. They loop into their main theme, sometimes waiting to spring it on the hapless reader until the fourth or fifth paragraph. In an age of short attention spans, exasperated readers often give up and move on.

Journalism students are taught – or at least they used to be taught – to spit out your best fact at the front-end of your first sentence. You want to attack your reader with your best fact, for the same reason you want to make a grand entrance or a great first impression. A wishy-washy beginning to a piece meant to persuade is the equivalent of a limp handshake.

People can disagree on the “best fact.” But it’s indisputable in today’s overloaded marketplace of information and messages, the best fact is usually what attracts readers’ attention and causes them to keep reading.

Placing the best fact first isn’t as easy as it sounds. After identifying what the best fact is, you need to conceive how best to say it. A blandly worded best fact is almost as bad as a buried best fact. 

Dickens’ opening line in A Tale of Two Cities works because it is succinct, has a natural cadence and is easy to remember. These are the same qualities that produce great sound bites. The best opening lines are, in effect, written sound bites.

Here are four made-up public affairs examples to illustrate the point:

• A majority of white Millennials believe they suffer as much discrimination as minorities, according to a recent poll.

• Data shows only 2 percent of all U.S. tax dollars go to educate children in public schools, suggesting public education is no longer the national priority it once was.

• Immigrants to the United States pay more in fees and taxes than they receive in public services and health care. That’s the finding from a recent economic study examining the financial impact of immigration.

• Rising housing prices in a community reflect demand outstripping supply and reinforce the need to increase the supply of housing units, especially ones that match the unmet market.

There are lots of excuses to avoid putting the best fact first. None of them hold much water. If your goal is readership, follow the eyeballs of readers. Give them your best and entice them to read more.

It’s worth noting that Dickens didn’t always follow the example he set in A Tale of Two Cities. Other works of his began with murkier opening lines. But one good example is all you need to remember the benefit of the best-fact-first strategy. A Tale of Two Cities actually offers two excellent examples – the opening line and the closing line. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

Write like that and you will get read.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Making Yourself a Ruthless Copyeditor

Oftentimes the only thing standing between you and abject embarrassment is your copyeditor. For most people, you can say hello to your copyeditor in the mirror.

It is a luxury to have an actual copyeditor to look over your writing, correct spelling and grammar, tighten sentences and point out incomplete thoughts. But most people don't have a copy editor. They just have a laptop or smartphone — and a deadline. 

Writing, for many people, is a chore or even a burden. For others, it is a breeze, accomplished seemingly without much exertion. The tortoise and the hare writers can both suffer the same fate — missing words, tangled sentences and jumbled thinking. Here are a few tips that can help:

1. Before writing anything, know what you want to say

The best writing is writing about what you know. That includes knowing what you want to say — What's your main point? Why it is important? What do you want your reader to take away? Create an outline, record your thoughts or just scribble notes. If you have a basic idea of what you want to say, the writing part is a lot easier.

2. Write what you want to say quickly

Once you have decided what you want to say, sit down and write, as quickly as possible to complete your full thought. Now you have something to work with. It's not a polished final product, but it is a full expression of your idea.