6 ways to cut copy for more powerful prose

Your ‘perfect’ text needs surgery, if not an outright amputation. Here’s what to excise—or lop off.

Finally happy with that document you’ve been working on all morning?

Great, now go back and cut 20 percent.

That’s right. Shear off one-fifth of it before you press “send.” I guarantee the result will be better than what you have now.

Not sure where to start? Here are hints on what to discard.

1. Nix that first paragraph

Whoa, sounds a bit drastic, doesn’t it?

Maybe. But if you’re like every other business writer out there, that first paragraph is just a load of corporate throat-clearing anyway.

If your opening line resembles any of the following, you’ve fallen prey to the preamble:

“At xxxx, we pride ourselves on/are committed to/believe in focusing on…”

“As a team leader, you play a critical role in the success of…”

“In my last message to you all I said…”

“In line with our strategy for…”

“In the last year, we have delivered…”

Don’t provide the strategic context. Don’t talk about what happened last year. And don’t tell your reader what they already know.

They’ll be skipping this stuff anyway, so ditch dull warm-ups like the above and get to the point.

2. Save the bragging for your appraisal

The art of good corporate communication is in knowing the difference between what you’d like to say and what your readers really need to hear.

So, let’s say you’re announcing a new product, service, strategy, or whatever.

I’m sorry to break it to you, but your readers really don’t care how many late nights and ruined weekends went into getting the thing off the ground.

Nor are they impressed by how much collaboration and innovation and other clichéd corporate values went into the project.

They just want to know what it can do for them. So lose the corporate chest-beating, and get to the point. Write for your reader, not for your boss.

3. Kill your darlings (but keep the bodies)

That particularly fine turn of phrase that’s had you patting yourself on the back all morning? Sorry, it’s got to go.

The exhortation to “kill your darlings” has been attributed to several writers, but it probably originated with Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, an English literary critic, who warned against the use of “extraneous ornamentation,” saying:

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.”

To this, I would add “keep the bodies”; paste that piece of purple prose into a document marked “hall of shame.” Return to it a few days later, and you’ll see how right you were to let it go.

4. Bury dead verbs

As you may have learned in school, verbs are doing words. Dead verbs are verbs that do no more than pad your writing. Take the following:

We’ll drive improvements in the business. (“We’ll improve the business.”)

We’ll deliver change across the firm. (“We’ll change the firm.”)

We must focus on cooperation with other teams. (“We must cooperate with other teams.”)

We have achieved success in 2011. (“We succeeded in 2011.”)

In these examples, the dead verbs “driving,” “delivering,” “focusing on,” and “achieving” do little but add words. (Notice that they’re more or less interchangeable.) And they make the writing sound less forceful because the real verbs (“improve,” “change,” “cooperate,” “succeed”) have been relegated to clunky, abstract nouns (“improvements,” “cooperation,” etc.).

Ditch dead verbs, and you won’t just have extra word count to play with. You’ll also instantly sound less like a corporate drone and more like a human being.

5. Trim those wordy phrases

“At the present time”? You mean “now,” right?

And by “in excess of,” you mean “more than,” yes?

Then why not just say them that way?

A good rule is never to use any expression you wouldn’t use outside the office. Presumably, you don’t talk like some jumped-up wannabe lawyer at home. So be brave at work, and never use several words when one will do.

That means letting go of pompous phrases such as “in the event of” (“if”), “in the absence of” (“without”), and “with a minimum of delay” (“quickly”).

6. Lose the hyperbolic adjectives

Yes, we understand you’re desperate to sell your brand’s product or service (or, as you’re no doubt tempted to call it, “experience”). But spare us the inflated descriptors that make you sound breathless and not very bright. Like the person responsible for this, which plopped into my inbox shortly before Christmas.

This year we’ve not one but two fantastic New Year’s Eve parties. Celebrate in iconic style [huh?], with exclusive access to some of London’s most breathtaking views . . . head out onto our exclusive terrace overlooking the Thames to enjoy London’s incredible fireworks and breathtaking views.

Fantastic! Iconic! Exclusive! Breathtaking! Exclusive! Incredible! Breathtaking! Hmm. If they’d toned it down a bit they might have sounded a little more Exclusive! and a little less desperate.

Got any tips for cutting words to give your writing punch? Please share them in the comments.

Clare Lynch is chief business writer and trainer at Doris and Bertie, a U.K. communications agency that helps businesspeople ditch corporate-speak and write like human beings. Follow her on Twitter @goodcopybadcopy.


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