Book excerpt: How to write so people pay attention

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My book, Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, is shipping from Amazon!

Buy it there now. Or buy the book in local book stores starting on May 25.

Here is tip #25 from the book: Don’t Use Adverbs

If you want people to pay attention to what you have to say, write short. This is true in all of life, but most true at work. Most of the writing we do at work is in the format of an email, proposal or presentation – all documents that your audience wants to get through quickly. The faster and more concisely you get to your point, the more likely your reader will stick with you and understand your message. “If today the president got up and addressed the nation in 270 words, it’d be a top news story. People will pay more attention because you’re so brief,” writes Janice Obuchowski in the Harvard Management Update.

We sound most authentic when we talk, and verbally, short, simple sentence construction comes naturally to us. When we write, authenticity gets buried under poor word choice. For example, people who use complicated words are seen as not as smart as people who write with a more basic vocabulary. “It’s important to point out that this research is not about problems with using long words but about using long words needlessly,” says Daniel Oppenheimer, professor of psychology at Princeton University.

Writing short is not easy. Take the 270-word Gettysburg Address, for example. “Lincoln didn’t just suddenly master elegant language. He wrote wonderful, down to earth language that was very concrete. But he rigorously trained himself to do that,” says Bryan Garner, editor of the Dictionary of Modern American Usage.

Here are some self-editing tricks for writing shorter:

1. Write lists.
People love reading lists. They are faster and easier to read than unformatted writing, and they are more fun. If you can’t list your ideas then you aren’t organized enough to send them to someone else.

2. Think on your own time.
Most of us think while we write. But people don’t want to read your thinking process; they want to see the final result. Find your main point in each paragraph and delete everything else. If someone is dying to know your logic, they’ll ask.

3. Keep paragraphs short.
Your idea gets lost in a paragraph that’s more than four or five lines. Two lines is the best length if you really need your reader to digest each word.

4. Write like you talk.
Each of us has the gift of rhythm when it comes to sentences, which includes a natural economy of language. But you must practice writing in order to transfer your verbal gifts to the page. Start by avoiding words you never say. For example, you would never say “in conclusion” when you are speaking to someone so don’t use it when you write.

5. Delete.
When you’re finished, you’re not finished: cut 10% of the words. I do this with every column I write. Sometimes, in fact, I realize that I can cut 25% of the words, and then my word count isn’t high enough to be a column and I have to think of more things to say. Luckily, you don’t have to write for publication, so you can celebrate if you cut more than 10%. Note: It is cheating to do this step before you really think you’re done.

6. Avoid telltale signs of a rube.
Passive voice. Almost no one ever speaks this way. And on top of that, when you write it you give away that you are unclear about who is doing what because the nature of the passive voice is to obscure the person taking the action. Check yourself: search for all instances of “by” in your document. If you have a noun directly following “by” then it’s probably passive voice. Change it.

7. Avoid adjectives and adverbs.
The fastest way to a point is to let the facts speak for themselves. Adjectives and adverbs are your interpretation of the facts. If you present the right facts, you won’t need to throw in your interpretation. For example, you can say, “Susie’s project is going slowly.” Or you can say, “Susie’s project is behind schedule.” If you use the first sentence, you’ll have to use the second sentence, too, but the second sentence encompasses the first. So as you cut your adjectives and adverbs, you might even be able to cut all the sentences that contain them.

… I just checked to see if I have modifiers in this section. I do. But I think I use them well. You will think this, too, about your own modifiers, when you go back over your writing. But I have an editor, and you don’t, and I usually use a modifier to be funny, and you do not need to be funny in professional emails. So get rid of your adverbs and adjectives, really.

15 replies
  1. Adam
    Adam says:

    Write like you talk!

    I know in broadcast news you do that. But don’t we talk in fragments instead of well-formed sentences?

  2. Working Girl
    Working Girl says:

    Smart tips.

    I would add: Write every day. Keep a journal (or blog) so you get into the habit of expressing yourself on paper. Like playing the piano or dancing, writing benefits from practice.

    Oh, and I aim to cut much more than 10% when I go back and edit! I try to cut in half. I rarely succeed, but the goal makes my message sharper, clearer, cleaner.

  3. AlmostGotIt
    AlmostGotIt says:

    Thank you, Penelope. I always appreciate it when people talk about good writing. Short is good. Yes. And Email is a form of writing with its own set of rules which we are only now beginning to codify. Including shortness. And codify is *too* a necessary word sometimes, and sometimes I even use it when I talk. And fortunately for those of us who think language is beautiful, there are other forms of writing too, besides email, so that we don’t really have to banish whole categories of words. Editors may well approve what college professors (or, alternatively, poets) definitely will not.

  4. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    Very nice tips.
    I agree that it doesn’t need to be long. As long as it’s concise, I think it’s enough for people to understand the main idea and be interested. No matter how short it is if the reader isn’t interested, it’s still useless.

  5. suba
    suba says:

    Nice words, can complement strunk. By the way, what about people who talk as they write? I do and I am trying to change it.

    * * * * * *
    This is such an interesting question of authenticity. Because if you talk how you write, then who you you sound like when you write and talk? Where is the real you and what does it sound like?


  6. Barb
    Barb says:

    Those are helpful tips.
    We know that it’s hard to pay attention to boring things. People have different tastes and it’s important to identify the factors that doesn’t need to be specific. It should be the basics that we must always consider.

  7. suba
    suba says:

    I will try to answer though I didn’t get the “who you you sound like when you write and talk” part. It’s mostly because of the type of person I am and the situation I am in. Professionally I am a consultant in a IT biggie and have to fake a lot – selling things I don’t believe in and pleasing people with ignorance. Guess then I usually talk like I write – or rather how a business book will read. In other life or even a few years before when I was a software developer I talked as I write and vice-versa. I know, I have to try getting a job in google or thoughtworks or believe in reincarnation.

  8. Ted Bailey
    Ted Bailey says:

    I remember when my high school English teachers used to criticize my writing style for being to abrupt. So for years I tried to write more “beautifully”. Now that I am in the business world, as this post accurately points out, short concise writing is the way to go. Damn you, 5 paragraph essay!

  9. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    Great tips. I would add Talk What You Write (aloud).
    Nothing like trying to wrap your lips around your words to find mistakes, or find things that are too wordy.

  10. Z-lot
    Z-lot says:

    I’m sorry to say that these tips will most likely rob anyone of his/her style of writing.

    I don’t think that abstracting one’s writing is something everyone should pay attention to at all times….

  11. Ian @ Home Based Business Online
    Ian @ Home Based Business Online says:

    Great tips Penelope! I have just found your blog and I’m very pleased by the quality of your posts. I plan to write a book and I was searching for some tips. The best thing you can do when starting something you are not very skilled at is learning from those who are experienced. I like your tips and will try to follow them. I think the hardest thing to accomplish is to write like you talk. When writing something people have the tendency to speak unnatural.

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