With writing, as with so many other disciplines, it’s easy to spot others’ mistakes but hard to recognize our own. Nobody realizes when he or she is coming across as an amateur, but there are introspective tools you can use to guard against this. Whether you’re writing a cover letter, magazine article, brochure, short story or even a simple email, keeping these tips in mind will make you a more effective communicator.
There are many red flags for amateur writing including common grammatical flaws and passive voice (which is a difficult habit to kick), but I’ll focus on two “leper’s bells.” In the interest of providing something helpful to people whose experience and abilities vary, I’m taking an eagle’s eye view rather than focusing on specific mistakes. (I will cover some of these in future posts).
Over-complicated language is commonplace, not only in published articles but in email and even social media. As a rule, it is better to use simple language. “Fast,” for instance, is a better word than “expeditious.” Active voice is simpler and better than passive voice under most circumstances. Here are a few mistakes that I’ve caught myself in and their simpler alternatives:
- “how they can be managed” → how to manage them
- “There is little doubt in my mind” → I have little doubt
- “It’s also worth noting that …” → Additionally…
- “of superb quality” → superb
At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have dumbed down writing that’s intended to be skimmable or relatable but instead misses the mark entirely. To me it simply comes across as cheeky. This is evident with:
- Ultra short-form content
- Overuse of listicles (e.g., top 10 lists)
- Overuse or misuse of slang
Root causes and safeguards
There are two common, underlying causes to these issues and I have some thoughts on how to guard against them in your own writing. The first mistake is trying to sound like a liberal arts professor.
If you can write informative, funny or inspiring content that people actually read, you’ll sound smart. If your first aim is to sound smart, nobody will read your crappy writing so you’ll fail on both counts.
If you tend to use complex, flowery language, ask yourself, “Am I writing primarily to sound intelligent or to provide something of value to the reader?” If you can write informative, funny or inspiring content that people actually read, you’ll sound smart. If your first aim is to sound smart, nobody will read your crappy writing so you’ll fail on both counts. If you think you sound “erudite,” chances are people will think your writing is pedantic. So there, Pierre.
It is easy to see the faults of others; we winnow them like chaff. It is hard to see our own; we hide them as a gambler hides a losing draw.
– The Dhammapada, v. 252 – 253
The second mistake, and the culprit for choppy, dumbed-down writing, is thinking people are dumber than clams. If you write content that’s intended to be skimmed, people will skim it. Don’t just assume everybody has severe attention-deficit disorder or the vocabulary of a six-year-old. Writing with integrity often means trying to move or influence people by maintaining their attention. It means drawing the reader’s attention to things that he otherwise would not have considered and may not have been looking for.
In a nutshell, don’t think you’re smarter than you are and don’t think other people are dumber than they are. Being mindful of those tendencies will benefit your writing.
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Is poor writing costing your company money? Could sharpening your own writing skills open up more opportunities? Contact me for a free, 15-minute phone consultation or stay posted for more free tips.