I attend a book club periodically. For a recent meeting, I’d heard of the assigned book, I knew people who liked the concepts in it, and the topic was relevant to my field of work, so I was looking forward to reading it. A fellow reader emailed me a week before the meeting: “The author could have used you as a book coach.” Not having read the book yet, I laughed off his comment, but by the middle of the first chapter I understood what he meant. This author was excessive in several areas—to the detriment of her message.
In writing as in life, sometimes a little bit goes a long way.
Excessive “I” Language
This author was writing in the leadership/professional development/communication space, and her core message related to building trust and strengthening relationships—creating a sense of “we” rather than “I.”
Unfortunately, her own language was so “I”-centric that it distracted from any sense of relationship with the reader. She described in excessive detail how she discovered the concepts presented. “I did this…” “When I found that…” “I thought this…”
A little bit of “how this book came to be” explanation is OK, usually in introductory comments. Readers don’t necessarily want to relive the wonder the author felt at each stage of discovery.
Related to the use of “I,” this author frequently used anecdotes of the famous people and organizations she had worked with. “As I advised [notable person’s name]…” “I was invited to speak at [exclusive event]…” “When I was working with [famous company name]…”
There is nothing wrong with using notable names, but using too many of them or going on about them for too long can be a turn-off. Readers begin to think, “OK, you’re an expert. We get it already.” Or, “Mmmm, someone got an inadequacy issue here?”
Excessive Number of Catchy Phrases, Labels, and Acronyms
To help audiences mentally organize and remember information, writers or speakers often use catchy acronyms (SCUBA, NASA) or labels (The Model’s Model, The Path to Excellence). In conceptual phrases, alliteration (conduit-content-connection) and rhyme (form-storm-norm-perform) are common. Good stuff—after all, if you can’t remember a tool or a process, you’re not likely to use it.
In the book about which I now rant, I counted nineteen (yes, 19) of these sorts of catchy labels, names, acronyms and so on.
Of these nineteen, at least six were acronyms. By halfway through the book, when I saw another acronym, my heart sank. Not another one… Sigh. How many acronyms can a reader handle before refusing to eat any more alphabet soup?
Keep in mind the brain likes to organize information into groups of 7 +/- 2 items. The more of these “memorable” phrases used, the less memorable they become. (19!)
Excessively Clever Acronyms
By all means we should have fun with acronyms—that’s part of what makes them memorable. Recognize, however, that excessive cleverness or “cuteness” can actually make it more difficult to remember what they stand for.
In the book under scrutiny, three of the six acronyms were words comprised of six or more letters. I got an image in my mind of the author scribbling at her desk trying really really hard to find phrases that would fit her targeted acronyms. I’m afraid she got:
Exercises that were not
Engaging for her
Acronyms work best when they flow naturally from the concept or process and when they don’t use uncommon or “empty” words (like “very”) to make a letter work.
Excessive Use of Trademarks
Of the 19 phrases mentioned above, the author had trademarked™ six and registered ® one. (Sing along! “With a ™ here and a ™ there, here a ™, there a ™, everywhere a ™ ™!”)
Don’t get me wrong: It is smart to protect your intellectual property. As with name-dropping though, your readers may find an excessive amount of it to be off-putting. Were the author’s ideas really that special? If they were, perhaps they deserve separate treatment (e.g., a different book).
There is a place for repetition. It is beneficial to reiterate key points periodically, especially in a book length work. (Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em; tell ’em; then tell ’em what you told ’em.) But there is not a place for excessive repetition. When that happens, readers start to skim and skip, and thus miss any gold buried in the sands of redundancy.
A good editor is a useful sieve.
One of my favorite sayings is “Everything in moderation, even excess.” I celebrate the occasional overindulgence in language and life! If only this author had been able to restrain herself in some capacity. Her wellsprings of excess irritated me so badly that I immediately blocked the book from my working brain, which is a pity because it did contain some helpful nuggets.
Unfortunately, the biggest benefit I took from this book was a heightened awareness of excess in writing.