Raise your hand if you’re intimidated by public speaking. If you’re in public right now, maybe just agree discreetly to yourself so strangers at the next table won’t give you the side-eye.
What is it about talking to a large audience that gives so many of us pause? Is it the staring, potentially judgmental crowd? Is it the harsh lights and wailing microphone feedback? Is it the possibility that we’ll forget to wear pants?
For most people, it’s the pressure of being “on”—front and center, live, in the hot seat.
Unless the words of your speech are graven upon your soul, you’re prime for derailment at any moment.
But what if, while you were up on that stage, there was a way to freeze or rewind time, without anyone knowing but you? You could choose your words perfectly or even reverse and rescue yourself from a disastrous quagmire of word salad.
How many people would be afraid of public speaking then?
Writing for an audience is public speaking, and your backspace key is your DeLorean.
So why don’t we use this godlike mastery of the fourth dimension to clean absolutely all of the gunk we can off of every sentence we put out there? How do we make sure, before we slam on that “publish” button, that what we’ve written is the leanest, sharpest, and most precise it can be?
Get Absolutely Brutal With Yourself
I had a journalism professor who tried to scare everyone the first day of class. He kept yelling “DROP THIS CLASS” and rattling off reasons why we should. He had the white hair of a man who knew what he was talking about, and his voice matched his mean, bulldog face.
But he was wearing a dinosaur necktie, and anyone who wears a novelty tie can’t be wholly joyless, so I went ahead and showed up again the second day. Of course, by then he’d dropped the act and turned out not to be such a drill sergeant. However, I’ll never forget one exercise he made us tackle that was almost as frightening as that first impression.
He told us to go out into the parking lot, pick an object we could see, and describe it in 200 words.
Getting to that word count was easier than it might seem. But then he had us cut it down to 100. Not terribly difficult; after all, getting to 200 in the first place had taken some careful embellishment. The challenge was getting it down to 50. And then, once we’d all accomplished that, 25.
Try this exercise the next time you sit down at your computer. It would likely help all of us learn to look at our sentences with the careful eye of a Bonsai pruner. What sticks out weirdly and should be lopped off? What can this organism lose and yet still thrive?
Don’t let yourself off easy on this, either; be thorough and brutal. Sure, your sentence might work the way it is, but our goal in writing shouldn’t be to produce copy that simply works. What if the person who sanded your chair felt the same way about their work?
A rough sentence is full of stabby, tetanus-pointed splinters, and once you know to watch for them, you’ll see them before anyone sits on them.
Watch for These Troublemakers
You know how movies will sometimes have a seedy-yet-charming dive bar with a wall of Polaroids somewhere, showing the customers who’ve earned a lifetime ban?
These are the kinds of words to tape up somewhere in your mind, so the next time they show up already blowing .21 and raving about Reptoids, you can throw them out before they start waving a sword around.
- Unnecessary Articles can be “a,” “an,” and “the,” and known hangouts for these losers are in posts about food, but you’ll see them almost everywhere else, too. “I ordered quinoa Hot Pockets and the egg rolls.” Why not just say “and egg rolls”?
In an early permutation of my lead for this post, I wrote “the strangers at the next table,” when “strangers at the next table” means the same thing but without the extra weight.
- Superfluous Prepositional Phrases tend to sneak in with groups of more important words and often wear disguises. Sometimes they’ll stand on each others’ shoulders, maybe three high, all wearing one oversized trench coat and affecting the deep voice of a stronger, more vital prepositional phrase.
But if you look closely, you’ll see their stubble is drawn on, and their ID says they’re from “Arizone.”
Remember, prepositions are words like “on,” “with,” and “for,” and a prepositional phrase is every word from the preposition to the noun it governs. For our three examples, prepositional phrases could be “on a mountain,” “with a sasquatch,” and “for reasons unknown.”
A few paragraphs up, I wrote: “showed up again the second day.” This went through a few passes before I got it reading the way I wanted. Originally, I wrote “showed up for class again on the second day,” which is grammatically correct, but it’s 33 percent longer than what’s on the page, and everything those bolded prepositions or phrases convey can be inferred.
Basically, if you can nix any of these while still communicating what you want to get across, they’re just dead weight.
- Passive-Voice Sentences are the ones where the subject is being punched instead of doing the punching.
These are usually pretty milquetoast, but there are times when these sentences are optimal. For instance, take an instruction manual, police report, or research findings. Any time the emphasis should be on the action instead of the actor, passive sentences get some vindication.
“The stolen wallets were discarded in the alley.” This is passive voice, but it’s a pretty clean way to convey this information since we don’t know who the perpetrator was.
However, in general, passive-voice sentences are weak and have no place on your roster of hard-hitting, leather jacket-wearing, active-voice sentences.
“Our web traffic was increased considerably last quarter.” The bolded word has no place here. It does nothing but turn a perfectly good active-voice sentence into a snoozer. Web traffic increased!
- Weak Verbs are a bummer. The first iteration of my sentence about my old professor’s challenge included two real duds. “I’ll never forget one exercise he had us do.” Blech! That reeks of first draft. “Had” and “do” are the verb equivalents of unsweetened ice tea (I’m from the Heartland, all right?).
As that sentence reads now, it replaces had with made (slightly better) and do with tackle (much better!).
- The Undercooked Tenses are the weird, milk-drinking cousins of weak verbs. They’re skinny, wear old bathrobes over plain white tank tops, and post up at the bar just making way too much eye contact. I’m speaking of the present progressive tense (also known as the present continuous tense), and, when used unnecessarily, the perfect tenses. Some languages, like Mandarin and German, are smart enough to avoid the former altogether.
In these examples, the “ones” will be in a tense I’m trying to warn you away from (because you deserve better), and the “twos” will be in a tense that might be just right for you.
- “The company is giving employees great stock options.”
- “The company gives employees great stock options.”
- “Our outlook is seemingly bright.”
- “Our outlook seems to be bright.”
- “The new format has replaced the previous one.”
- “The new format replaces the previous one.”
- “Profits were surpassing expectations all quarter.”
- “Profits surpassed expectations all quarter.”
See the difference?
- Vestigial Adverbs abound. Adverbs are great! They’re a valuable tool in the writer’s arsenal. But they are so overused that it’s no wonder your sixth-grade teacher told you to stay away from them (more on that in a minute).
In the following example, the “one” is a common adverb offender, and the “two” is evidence proving you don’t need an adverb here at all:
- The thief ran quickly.
- The thief bolted; the thief sprinted; the thief lit out like lightning; the thief did literally anything other than run quickly.
A common adverb sin is overusing them after “said,” as in, “he said happily.” This is OK if used sparingly. Even Stephen King, mortal enemy of the adverb, uses them often but with restraint. If you look at your page and see a lot of these, cut all but the few most necessary.
But an even more common adverb sin is using an adjective when you mean to use an adverb. (“The thief ran quick” is a disaster of a sentence, unless by “quick” you mean the flesh beneath a fingernail, and the thief is smuggling it for some reason.)
- Dishonorable Mention—The word “that.” You thought that I would forget it, but it’s the one that many of us use where it doesn’t need to be. (Neither of the bolded occurences of the word are necessary, and their use detracts from the strength of the sentence.)
Forget (Some Of) What Your Teacher Taught You
We have a lot to thank our middle-school teachers for, but oversimplifications of grammar rules and some generally bad writing practices … not so much.
- Minimum word counts for classroom assignments seem to be leading contributors to fatty, unfocused writing in adulthood. I remember trying to game the system when I was contending with these (and trying to maintain an ideal homework/Nintendo balance), and as many of us probably remember, definitions from Webster’s Dictionary were handy to pad that count but disastrous for an introductory paragraph.
The truth is, short or long, a piece needs to be as long as it needs to be to get your point across in the most effective way possible.
- It’s fine to boldly split your infinitives.
- End a sentence with a preposition if you need to. Often, that construction is less awkward than trying to shoehorn in an intact prepositional phrase.
- Do not put two spaces between your sentences. This one might be the hardest to unlearn, and you have my sympathy if this one’s coded in your DNA, but as a wise old gremlin once said, you must unlearn what you have learned.
The Case for Clarity
This may seem like a lot of nitpicking, but cleaner writing keeps the eye moving, and an eye that
moves quickly darts down the page is more likely to get to the bottom of that page, which means your whole post gets read instead of only the first few paragraphs.
Plus, not only are these constructions leaner, they’re clearer and more precise for the sake of your readers—and also for your sake, since you’re the one with a message to get across.
A great way to test your own writing for clarity and readability is to let it sit (or “cool off”) for a few minutes or even an hour, and then go back and read it. If your eye trips over anything, address it. No one will comprehend your writing as well as you will, so if it throws you, it will probably throw others.
And, of course, if you’d rather not go through this, it’s kinda what we do here.