What was it that William Zinsser said? Something about how deliberately garnishing prose is like putting a wig on a bald man; it looks good at first glance, but something isn’t quite right. Zinsser was a writing wiz (say that ten times fast). He taught the craft for decades and inspired confidence in writers of all sorts. You may be familiar with his most famous book, On Writing Well.
His main message? Simplify your language. The main culprits that spew unintelligible jargon are businesspeople; they fill memos, newsletters, and emails with convoluted language usually reserved for politicians. These people don’t want to get a clear message across. They want to sound important and intelligent, but all they do is make their readers’ eyes glaze over.
If you want to sound like a human and still say what you need to say, consider Zinsser’s strategies.
- Use shorter words. Try “rank” instead of “prioritize,” “try” instead of “attempt,” “help” instead of “assistance,” and “many” instead of “numerous.”
- Turn phrases into single words. “With the possible exception of” should be “except.” “At this juncture of maturization” means “now.”
- Cut unnecessary introductions. Don’t write, “This will interest you.” Say what will interest readers and they’ll be interested.
- Eliminate redundant adjectives. A tall skyscraper is just a skyscraper. You don’t smile happily—you just smile.
- Toss weakening qualifiers. “A bit,” “sort of,” and “in a sense” mean nothing.
- Reexamine and prune. Read prose out loud to feel its cadence. If you repeat yourself, trim it. If you can simplify it, simplify it.
When you cut language to its bones, you find what you mean to say. Only then can you build it back up with your own voice.