Give Your Prose a Hug to Squeeze Out Wasted Words

Be a lover of words to become a more effective communicator. Don’t be afraid of hugging your prose to squeeze out wasted words that gum up what you are trying to say.

Be a lover of words to become a more effective communicator. Don’t be afraid of hugging your prose to squeeze out wasted words that gum up what you are trying to say.

Competition for eyeballs and shrinking attention spans make it imperative to write to the point.

Extraneous words, convoluted sentences and meandering thoughts confuse your audience and cause them to click somewhere else. “Extraneous words gum up our prose,” writes Philip Corbett in The New York Times “After Deadline” blog. “Many padded expressions are weak, flabby and ineffective.“

Bright, straightforward writing is the secret to keeping your audience’s attention. Bright writing means telling your story by selecting only the best details and describing them in vivid word pictures. Straightforward writing involves using a garden hoe to remove words, phrases and thoughts you don’t need to tell your story.

You can search online for extensive lists of wasted words. Candidates for the compost bin include:

  • Moreover
  • Currently
  • In order to
  • Presently
  • Basically
  • Essentially
  • Actually
  • Obviously
  • Literally

Simplifying sentences is another vital verbal gardening chore.  Corbett offered a simple example: Instead of “The answer is a simple one,” (six words) why not just “The answer is simple” (four words).

Corbett offered a more typical example (this one from The New York Times) of how to get rid of wasted words:

Replace: “His method was a laborious one that involved crushing the peppers with a potato masher and mixing them with rock salt from the island’s own salt mines, then aging the mash twice, adding vinegar in between.”  With: “His laborious method involved using a potato masher to crush peppers, then mixing them with indigenous rock salt and aging them twice while adding vinegar.” Editing reduced a 36-word sentence to a streamlined 25 words without sacrificing meaning or detail.

If you could trim an average of 10 words per sentence, you could shorten and add punch to marketing content, information posts and explanations of complex subjects. The space you save from fewer words would allow you to enlarge an image, highlight a key quote or insert an infographic.

Being kind to your readers, viewers and listeners requires mastery of your subject matter and a commitment to economical expression. Say what you need to say. Say it as straightforwardly as you can. Choose the best words to convey your meaning. Delete unnecessary and lazy words. Polish your sentences until they sparkle.

Unless you are a playwright or novelist writing dialogue, your written words don’t need to echo how you speak. Ironically, if you become a master editor of your own prose, it will leak over to how you speak.

Clear expression is never out of style, and these days it certainly is in high demand. Be a lover of language, treat words with respect and give your sentences frequent hugs.

[CFM can turn you into a word lover with training and assistance to tell your story through economical and bright writing.]

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 and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Turning Complexity into Clarity

The right infographic can help make complex ideas clear.

The right infographic can help make complex ideas clear.

Turning complexity into clarity is a critical challenge for today's communicators. Visual tools can help. A lot.

Telling your audience a subject is complex is a big turn-off. Showing people the essence of a complex subject is something they will appreciate. It is a proven way to earn trust, even from doubters.

The secret to decoding "complexity" is to identify what makes it seem complex. A Tektronix subsidiary that made circuit boards found itself in political hot water after neighbors went to city hall to oppose what should have been a routine air permit renewal. A few visits to neighbors revealed the concern was rooted over what went on inside the company's austere, windowless building that generated so much air pollution.

Company officials explained how the plant's manufacturing process worked. When we were called in to help, we had a simpler idea – an open house. We wanted people to see there was nothing menacing inside the manufacturing facility. We also wanted people to see – as soon as they walked through the front door – how circuit boards power products they use everyday.

The "complexity" was eliminated with visitors, with a warm cookie in hand, strolling by the circuit board display and wandering around in the factory. The issue disappeared instantly and the subsidiary got a renewed air permit.

It is harder to clarify "complexity" when you are still in the design stage of a project. There is no place to hold an open house. That's where an infographic or a SlideShare presentation come in handy.

Saying a proposed project is safe may not be as effective as showing project safety features. An infographic is a great tool to show how a process works and the key safety features at each critical point. An illustration can be easy and logical to follow. It can use visual symbols that are familiar to the eye. An interactive illustration can include links to video clips showing safety features in operation at an existing facility.

A SlideShare presentation or flip chart can enable a viewer to walk through a "complex" process that has been sliced into 10-12 digestible, comprehensible and visually powerful slides. Creating such presentations sends the message that your views are capable of understanding a project's "complexity." Well-conceived slides that show key details and their significance contribute to understanding and earn respect for your overall message.

Increasing numbers of products and projects involve complex technologies, medical advances or emerging science. Many communicators, who graduated with liberal arts degrees and shunned the science building like the plague, may seem ill-prepared to talk about them. Not so.

Not knowing about technical subjects makes it easier – and necessary – to ask the basic questions, which are the questions most likely on the minds of the target audience of the communications.

Turning "complexity" into clarity isn't a test of how much you know, but rather how well you can synthesize what you know into something that people can read, view or experience and understand.

Big Ideas in Small Packages

Placing your big idea in a small package is a great way to reach a wider audience.The best way to get your big idea into the mind of your target audience is to deliver it in a small package. The human brain only can absorb information in small doses, so packaging your content is critical to being seen, read and rewarded.

Social media blogger Jay Baer asked in a recent post whether it is more likely for someone to view a 90-second video or a 32-page e-book. In the 140-character world beget by Twitter, Baer said bet on the video to attract more viewers. The same can be said for presenting your big idea in a stuffy white paper instead of a neatly organized package of information that catches your viewers' attention and allows them to discover your idea in the level of detail they want.

It is really a numbers game. More people are likely to read a tidbit than a tome. The more eyeballs that read your content, the more likely you are to generate a response, be found in an online search or have your big idea shared with an even wider audience. However, it also is about quality. You may get noticed then dismissed unless you offer real value.

Complex subjects demand richer explanation. Luckily, digital media offers many options to accommodate that need.