Blogger and technical communicator Tom Johnson interviews Marcia on the importance of writing skills in today’s techno-savvy world.
This morning, The Content Wrangler Scott Abel chatted with me in a recorded webinar. See it here: “Language Matters: How to Write Powerful Sentences & Paragraphs.”
What is a part of speech? You might not believe how much disagreement and nuanced analysis surrounds that question.
This essay ventures into some philosophical questions—What does it mean to classify a word, and how and why have those classifications changed?—before emerging with a bit of writerly advice. I find this excursion invigorating, like a deep‑sea search for treasure. Come along, and we’ll share the spoils.
According to one modern school of linguistic thought, only four word types—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs—now qualify as parts of speech. Four. The nerve! … Continue reading
Sometimes it’s okay to try. Go ahead and try a new recipe. If someone you love has had a trying day, by all means try a little tenderness.
But most of the time, don’t try.
We all know what kids mean when they tell their parents, “I’ll try.”
How’s this for weak advice? (I swear I just read this in a newsletter.) “If you can’t justify the existence of some of your content, try to live without it.” Try to live without it? No! If you can’t justify its existence, dump it. Deep-six it. Sayonara, bye-bye, content, you are OUTAHERE. Ix-nay on the y-tray.
Sally’s going to try to eat smaller portions. Joe’s going to eat smaller portions. Who’s going to lose weight?
As for the Old College Try, it’s the Old College Fail. Give it the Old College Do.
Eskimos can’t have more words for snow than Central New Yorkers do. Finding myself in CNY at the moment, I have some choice words of my own for snow. Be gone.
I admit, though, that this white (or grey or black) stuff has its uses. For example, it inspires metaphorical thinking. One minute I’m chiseling frozen slush off the sidewalk; the next I’m thinking, This is like editing. Writers hack, hack, hack at the bits and chunks and heaps obstructing the mind’s way until either (a) we give up and leave our readers, like unfortunate pedestrians on a precarious trail, to fend for themselves or (b) we stand back in sweaty awe of the path that we’ve created.
If you’re hardy enough to apply a shovel to your own writing, you’ll want to give the heave-ho to the following words.
|very||It fails to emphasize: “I have a
|really||It weakens your point: “I
|any other word that ends in -ly||Adverbs are
|just||See Don’t say “just.” I’m just sayin’. (No point expending effort repeating myself here.)|
|proverbial||See The proverbial proverbial. (No point expending effort repeating myself here.)|
|try||See Try not to try. (No point expending effort repeating myself here.)|
|different||See Let me count the — different? — ways. (No point expending effort repeating myself here. Hey, wait a minute…)|
|the fact that|
|any other words that you can toss||Going after culprit words like the ones in this list (or in any of a thousand such lists) warms you up. After you’ve chucked them, stretch, bend, twist, shake your arms, and hunker down for the real chore.|
|never||I’m kidding. Of course you can say never. How else can you tell people what words never to use?|
Come on now. Put your back into it.
P.S. Like all other rules — and unlike your back — these rules are for breaking. If you’re writing poetry or lyrics, say, or if you’re going for a certain voice, or if you have a reason of any other kind (good reasons being preferable by most accounts), knock yourself out. Not literally. There, I broke a rule. I also broke one in sentence #1. Anyone notice? (John, Doug, thanks for the replies that prompted this P.S.)
Here’s my lightning talk on this topic (at the Write the Docs conference in Portland, Oregon, on May 5, 2014):
This short post below represents an early version of a substantial chapter in my book, Word Up! You can download the complete chapter, “To Be or Not To Be,” for free from my “Excerpts” page.
Here’s my challenge to you. Dump to be. Get rid of be, being, been, am, are, is, was, were, have been, could be, will be, won’t be, and so on. At least avoid using them as main (linking) verbs, as in “Our product is superior.” Give your readers an action verb instead. Tell them what your superior product does.
Take special care to weed out there are, here is, and it’s in their various forms.
Limit to be verbs to these uses:
- to support another verb (“You’re learning.”)
- to comment on existence (“We think, therefore we are.”)
- to emphasize an equation (“The medium is the message.”)
- to play with a to be expression (“It’s lonely in the middle too.”)
- to create an aesthetic effect, such as a cadence (“If you’re wasteful with words, why should I trust you with money?”)
When you recast to be sentences in creative ways, you’ll use fewer clichés, fewer adjectives, fewer adverbs, and in general fewer words. You’ll use more (and more forceful) verbs — the strongest part of speech there is. The strongest part of speech, period.
Try it. The difficulty might surprise you. Persistence will reward you.
(I first published this article, in a slightly different form, in the spring 1991 issue of IABC Communicator, the newsletter of the Central New York chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators.)