This may not sound like a writing tool, but it’s a great place to check the standard British spelling and formatting of words and phrases. If you’re not sure whether it’s ‘prime minister’, ‘prime-minister’ or ‘primeminister’, take a look at BBC News to see how they’re formatting it (the answer is ‘prime minister’).
The writer has used some quite wordy sentences here. It’s a dense block of text, made up of three long sentences without much light and shade.
By breaking up some of those long sentences, we can bring a bit more rhythm to this piece of writing. We’re aiming for a mixture of short and long sentences.
We could also try rewriting some of the wordier parts altogether. Obviously, we don’t want to lose any of the information the writer has included. This is just about finding shorter ways to say the same things.
Let’s see what difference those tactics make:
With a few subtle changes, we’ve brought a sense of rhythm and pace back to the text. It’s easier and more interesting to read, and it no longer looks like a big clump of words on the page.
One of the greatest threats to good writing is ‘waffle’.
The word ‘waffle’ may conjure up cosy images of hot waffles for breakfast with whipped cream and maple syrup, but in the writing world, waffle is much more dangerous.
Waffle is unnecessary text that suffocates your message.
Here’s an example:
While we recognise that all children develop at their own pace, it is generally recommended that babies, toddlers and small children are not left unsupervised with items that contain small parts, as this may cause choking. With this in mind, we advise that you avoid giving this product to any children under the age of three, to prevent this unlikely but serious outcome.
The writer has a very serious message to give, but he has cloaked it in so much unnecessary padding that it has completely lost its impact.
Let’s strip all that waffle away:
Do not give this product to children under the age of three. It contains small parts that may cause choking.
The result is a direct instruction that’s easy to follow and a clear concise explanation for it.
If you’re a serial waffler, don’t despair. It’s a common problem and it’s easily fixed. When you’ve identified the reason for the waffle, you can start cutting it out of your writing.
Here are three reasons for waffling and how to tackle them:
You’re not exactly sure what you’re trying to say
If you’re not sure what you’re trying to say, take some time to work out what the key points of your message are. That’s the hard part. Once you know what you’re trying to say, you can just go ahead and say it.
You’re worried about making your point directly
If you’re worried about making your point directly, ask yourself why that is. Perhaps you don’t want to sound ‘bossy’. Remember that your reader will expect you to give them instructions (take a look at our previous post on this topic: Like a boss).
Perhaps you will need to draw attention to something that’s awkward or unpleasant. It can be difficult to find the right words for a sensitive topic, but try to avoid lots of unnecessary skirting around the issue. Choose your words carefully, by all means, but make sure the essential information is easy to find and understand.
You’re trying to make your writing sound impressive
If you’re trying to make your writing sound more impressive, you might need to consider whether this is a good strategy. Text that’s full of waffle just isn’t effective. Readers will give up on it, no matter how impressed they may be by the writer’s vocabulary.
This is a particularly bad tactic if you’re writing public information. Long, wordy paragraphs can intimidate the very people you’re trying to engage and educate. Shorter sentences and simpler words are usually the way to go.
Ready to start tackling the waffle? We’ll be back on Thursday for some waffle-busting fun in the Write for Real People Workshop.
When you’re writing instructions, don’t be afraid of being bossy. The most effective instructions often use direct language and imperative verbs (verbs which give a command).
Do not smoke in the building.
Wash your hands after feeding the animals.
These instructions are clear and helpful. The language is direct, the tone is authoritative and the message is easy to follow.
You might be worried about sounding demanding or rude if you used commands like these in your writing. Perhaps you’d be more likely to write something like this:
Please try to avoid smoking in the building.
We recommend that you wash your hands after feeding the animals.
The tone here is certainly softer, but the message just isn’t as powerful.
Here’s why you should use the imperative:
1.) You’re the boss
If you (or your organisation) are giving instructions, take charge with your words. Your reader needs to hear what you’ve got to say and follow the directions you give them. They won’t be surprised when you tell them what to do (or what not to do).
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can never say ‘please’. Use it sparingly though. You don’t want to sound as though you’re pleading with your reader.
For example, these instructions could do with being much more direct:
Please try to be considerate of other passengers on the bus wherever possible. We ask that you avoid putting your bags on the seats. If you could take all litter home with you, this would be greatly appreciated. We would like to advise you that the blue seats by the door are reserved for disabled people and the elderly.
In an effort to be polite, the writer has made these instructions very long-winded and rather feeble. They don’t sound like authoritative commands, just the vain wishes of a rather desperate bus driver.
Let’s see if we can make some improvements:
Please be considerate of other passengers on the bus. Do not put your bags on the seats. Take all litter home with you. The blue seats by the door are reserved for disabled people and the elderly.
2.) Direct instructions are safer instructions
Using direct commands usually makes your writing clearer. If you are giving your reader directions for their safety or wellbeing, don’t make them sound like mere suggestions. You don’t want your reader to treat them as optional.
If there is a fire, we recommend that you leave the building as soon as possible. You are advised to use the nearest fire exit. Please avoid taking any belongings with you.
Here, the writer sounds as though they’re afraid of sounding too bossy. In reality, the reader needs to be told with authority that they MUST leave the building in the event of a fire. In an attempt to sound polite, the writer has diluted the meaning and implied that leaving the building is only a ‘recommendation’. In this case, a more direct command is a safer choice:
If there is a fire, leave the building immediately. Use the nearest fire exit. Do not take anything with you.
Follow these simple tips and you’ll be giving instructions like a boss in no time.
If you want to make your writing easy to read, start by cutting out any unnecessary long words or jargon. It’ll be clearer and sharper without them.
Here are a couple of tips to get you started:
1.) Never use a longer word when a shorter one will do.
It can be tempting to throw in a few impressive words to add a sense of authority:
Councillor Jeremy Bucket will commence his mayoralty on 1 January, 2018. He would like to extend his gratitude to the electorate.
Reading this kind of thing is hard work because we don’t use these words in normal conversation. It comes across as unfriendly, exclusive and even a bit silly.
We can fix this by replacing the long words with short ones:
Councillor Jeremy Bucket will start his term as mayor on 1 January, 2018. He would like to thank everyone who voted.
2.) Use definitions to explain specialist terms
Sometimes jargon is necessary. If you need to use a specialist word that your readers won’t be familiar with, add a definition to explain what it means. It’s also always a good idea to explain any acronyms:
At Wafflington Sustainable Extensions, we choose materials such as flyash concrete (a more eco-friendly form of concrete) and SIPs (structural insulating panels).
Ready to get jargon-busting? Next week, on the blog we’ll be trying this strategy out on some worked examples. See you then.