“Bob, you always sound so literate. What’s your secret?”
I’m sure someone named Bob received a compliment like this. I haven’t, but I’m not dead yet so it could still happen. In the meantime, here are a few of my … well, if they aren’t my secrets for sounding literate, exactly, they’re techniques I rely on.
Think geometrically: No, no, no, no, no. When deciding whether a rectangle, triangle, or rhombus is best for enclosing text on a PowerPoint slide, choose what you like. I’m suggesting you organize whatever document you’re creating like a geometric proof.
As you might recall from your high school days, depending on which high school you attended and what shape your memory is in, geometric proofs begin with stated assumptions (axioms) and proceed with inferences drawn from the axioms and from previously stated inferences, until the geometrician has reached the desired conclusion.
When you write to make a point, you should also take care to make sure each point you make flows clearly and logically from the previous points you’ve made, stating and explaining each transition without asking your reader to figure out the connections.
Put yourself last: We’re talking about lists, not cafeteria lines. If you and several colleagues worked on something, for example, you don’t say, “I, Sam, Merry, Pippin, and Gandalf destroyed the ring of power.” You say, “Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, and I.”
It’s better writing, and better manners.
Choose the best word. A friend used to talk about the pointlessness of worrying whether to say “happy” or “glad.”
Guilty as charged. Here’s why: “Happy” has childlike overtones. “Glad” doesn’t, but still isn’t as adult as “pleased.”
Except that “worry” is the wrong word too (see?). I evaluate the two words to choose the one that fits the situation best.
Second example, for something more negative. Do you think it’s awful? Disastrous? Poorly done? Putrid?
Will the result be disappointing? A calamity? Horrible?
English provides a wide range of overlapping but distinct alternatives for most situations. Take advantage of it.
But don’t show off. There are underused words you can and should take advantage of. On the positive side of things, I put “phenomenal” in this category. On the negative side there’s “wretched” — a word I’m quite fond of, but that rarely belongs in business writing.
Speaking of choosing the best word …
Avoid “thing.” Whatever “thing” you’re talking about, in the English language you can almost certainly find a word that nails down what you’re talking about more precisely than the most generic noun in the language. Well, one of the two most generic; “stuff” is just as generic, and almost always just as avoidable.
They also aren’t interchangeable — things are discrete and countable where stuff is continuous. And, stuff has a slight overtone of messiness, too.
Sludge is stuff. A vat of sludge is a thing.
And another thing …
Avoid “there are.” There are usually better ways to start making a point. For example, “You can usually find better ways to start making a point.”
Get “that” and “who” right. When you’re talking about a person it’s always “who,” as in, “Harry is the employee who best exemplifies what I’m talking about,” vs “Netflix is the company that best exemplifies it.”
Get “less” and “fewer” right. When you’re talking about stuff, use less. When you’re talking about things, use fewer, as in, “With the new quality program we’ll have fewer defects.” Now, now, don’t be skeptical. It’s just an example, to distinguish fewer from, “With the new program we’ll have less waste.”
Avoid duplication and redundancy. Not really. Sometimes, “Saying this is redundant and duplicative,” does help emphasize a point more than just one or the other. I’m talking about phrases like, “We have to plan for the future.”
Not that this is a bad period of time to plan for; certainly it makes more sense than planning for the past or present. But “We have to plan,” (or, “We have to develop a plan,”) sounds just an increment more literate and makes the same point.
Make paragraphs short. With more than five or six lines in a paragraph the human visual system has a hard time keeping its place in the text. Reading content with long paragraphs is fatiguing.
Short paragraphs are, in addition to being more courteous, also selfish. With short paragraphs, those reading your dulcet prose are more likely to read it instead of skimming.
Keep the whole thing short. As short as possible, that is, and no shorter. KJR, for example, adheres to a strict length limit and I work hard to keep it within