“I take great joy,” Greg writes gleefully, “in annoying clerks in medical offices by complaining about their patient forms that ask for my past medical history.”

Did you catch the needless modifier? Are you listening closely to your language?

“I always demand why they are only interested in my past history” Greg writes, “and why they show no interest in my present or my future history.”

You also make an important point. We’re surrounded by sloppy language and careless word choice. And if we don’t watch out, we risk developing bad habits. Perhaps the worst way to write is to mimic every wordy expression we hear.

Here are four tips to help you write more concisely, emphatically and memorably, not to mention effectively, persuasively and engagingly. (Give me a minute and I’ll think of a few more.)

“Omit needless words”

That one’s in quotes because, well, it’s a quote. It’s rule 17 from Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” It’s also the foundation of good writing. To paraphrase Stephen King, first draft minus 10 percent equals second draft. So until such time as you learn to avoid wordy expressions during the course of your writing, you’ll fail to make a connection with your reader. In other words, until you learn to avoid wordy expressions in your writing, you’ll fail to connect with your reader. Which brings us to tip No. 2.

Prefer action verbs

Don’t nominalize your verbs by turning them into nouns. Don’t make a connection with your reader, connect with your reader. Don’t make a decision, decide. Don’t come to a conclusion, conclude. And whatever you do, don’t make a revision when you can revise, don’t make a change when you can change and don’t undertake a study of something when you can simply study it. Do you see the pattern, or should I make reference to more examples? Have you come to the realization you may be changing your verbs into nouns, or have you realized you may nominalize?

Don’t trust modifiers

I didn’t say don’t use adjectives and adverbs, I said don’t trust them. Use them sparingly and very very carefully (or just plain carefully, or just carefully, or carefully). Don’t repeat every common modifier you hear. If you do, the end result is wordiness. (Where else does a result occur? At the beginning?) Are you in agreement that we have a general consensus, or do you agree (back to tip two) we have a consensus? Do you have any personal opinions. Free gifts? True facts? (Oops, bad example.)

Trim sentence endings

That’s where wordiness often occurs. So don’t worry about the problems you are experiencing, worry about your problems. And whatever you do, don’t let your muscles sag in a downward motion.

So choose your words with decision and write with concision (not to mention precision as well as revision). Sorry. I’m getting carried away.


Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.