Oops! I goofed.
An error I made in my most recent column shows the importance of little things.
They can change the meaning of a sentence to the opposite of what a writer intends.
That one little thing in my March 21 column: the missing-in-action word "the."
The sentence in question read, "Failure to communicate clearly risks the loss of confidence we seek from customers …"
You can easily mistake that to mean we seek "loss of confidence," rather than confidence.
How to fix it? Rescue that missing-in-action "the," to wit:
"Failure to communicate clearly risks the loss of the confidence we seek …"
That second "the" makes all the difference.
Or write, " … risks losing the confidence we seek …"
Even though I followed my own advice and read aloud (twice) what I had written, I missed that glitch.
As the educator Marcus Quintilianus (35-100 A.D.) said:
"We should write, not so that it is possible to understand us, but so that it is impossible to misunderstand us."
If you read my flawed sentence, again and slowly, I believe you will see the problem.
A writer should never cause a reader to stop in midsentence and ask, "Wait, what is that supposed to mean?"
I hope you learn as much from my error as I have.
Now consider a different kind of glitch: instead of one missing word, the presence of too many words — a windiness that afflicts writing.
Remember the man who never used one word when three would do?
"Our board of directors is supportive of your proposal."
The word "is" — like any form of "to be" — confronts us with the weakest verb in the language.
The wishy-washy term "supportive of" prolongs the weakness.
If the board supports the proposal, just say so.
The action verb "supports" delivers a punch; "is supportive of" bleeds the life out of communication.
To strengthen your writing, focus on your choice of a verb — a sentence's beating heart.
Gary Gilson is a Twin Cities writing coach and Emmy Award winner. He also teaches journalism at Colorado College. Gilson can be reached through his website writebetterwithgary.com.