Give Readers What's Useful, Not Useless Words

James Michener, who gave the world classics such as "Hawaii" and "Centennial," described himself as a poor writer, but a good rewriter. Aspire to be a good rewriter.

James Michener, who gave the world classics such as "Hawaii" and "Centennial," described himself as a poor writer, but a good rewriter. Aspire to be a good rewriter.

If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, what are 1,000 words worth? Too often, not much.

We are taught in school to show off with words. The more the better. If a professor assigns a 5-page essay, we write until will fill up five pages. What dolt would write just a single paragraph? It's not how you say it; it's how long it takes to say it.

In the real world, people aren't impressed by verbosity. They value brevity and clarity. They want you to spit it out. Sadly, many writers are unprepared for the task. All they know is the lesson of a 5-page essay.

WordRake, which has been spearing fat phrasing for three years, provided illustrative examples of how a simple, lean sentence can be bloated into a plumper one that says the same thing. Here is one example:

The 8-word sentence "Benjamin Franklin had a younger sister named Jane" is transformed into the 18-word heavyweight "It is common knowledge that Benjamin Franklin had a younger sister who went by the name of Jane." More words, but no more meaning.

Ten words here, 10 words there and pretty seen you've filled up a page, email, memo, white paper or website with a lot of useless words. You will have, however, conveyed some unintended messages. You are pompous. You are boring. You are too lazy to edit your own work so it sizzles instead of drizzles.

Editing your writing requires discipline and effort. You have to care, especially for your reader. Give them a break and tell them what they need to do as simply as possible.

A good place to start is writing your headline or subject line first. This will remind you as you write of what you are trying to say.

Next, write a synopsis in the 140-character straightjacket format of Twitter. This will force you to include what's essential and eliminate everything else.

Use active verbs and write in a painterly voice with colorful words and metaphors that show what you mean.

Don't believe what your high school or college teachers told you about how wonderful your writing is. It probably isn't wonderful. James Michener, who wrote more than 40 books, said he was a poor writer, but a good rewriter. Aspire to be a good rewriter. Don't be a literary litterer.

Attack your sentences like weeds in a garden. Save the blooms, pull the rest.

Give readers what's useful, not a bunch of useless words.

Write Tight, Write for a Tweet

Do your readers a favor and write tight. While you're at it, include a quotable phrase or two that readers will remember and you can use on Twitter to promote what you wrote.

Roy Peter Clark, author of "How to Write Short; Word Craft for Fast Times," says he now edits essays, opinion pieces, anything to make sure there are memorable lines. He says that's what will stick in people's minds and what can be shared, tweeted and retweeted.

In his review of Clark's book, Washington Post Outlook Editor Carlos Lozada says "the veteran writing guru not only praises Twitter's 140-character limit as a tool for 'intelligent cutting,' but dismantles the staid lament that writing in the Twitter era has grown shallow, fleeting, anti-literary."

Even though Clark is "old school," Lozada says he has embraced digital media as a platform for short, potent writing. "We need more good, short writing," Clark insists, "the kind that makes us stop, read and think in an accelerating world."

For the public affairs professional who addresses often hostile audiences, this is excellent advice. Whether or not you are active on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, you need to write like you are. The time for dry, drawn out prose has gone, unless you are taking a college English class studying the collected works of John Milton.