My last three blog posts all were triggered by my irritation with poor communication—whether words or formatting. My goal—my purpose—is to help people get their ideas onto the page in a way the audience will understand and embrace. After many years of corporate business writing (and a boss who knocked it into my head), one of the most valuable lessons I learned was anything that distracts the reader gets in the way of conveying your message. Eliminate distractions.
The no-distractions rule applies to books as well as memos and other business communications. Of course it encompasses spell-os and grammar-os, but it goes beyond that. I have learned to watch out for the following…
Overuse of Certain Punctuation
Artist Nicholas Rougeux turned famous works of literature into art posters by displaying only the punctuation used. The effect is quite lovely, and it becomes obvious when an author favors a specific mark (Melville loves dashes). In real-life reading, the overuse of certain forms of punctuation can become a distraction.
For example, one of the most common “amateur” moves I see in book manuscripts is the overuse of exclamation points!!! Yes, exclamation points bring energy and emphasis, but as with fish and loaves, a few can go a long way.
My own punctuation habit is em dashes—those lovely lines that indicate a break and then continuation of a thought—used with reckless abandon. I’ve seen other writers who identify as semicolon-aholics or “quote mark junkies.” After a point, these all turn into distractions.
The remedy: Identify your own special punctuation tics. If you aren’t sure that you have any, ask another writer to help you identify them. Maybe you are free and clear! Don’t worry about these tendencies while you’re writing and revising, but do look at them one you’ve moved into editing and proofing mode. One author I know challenged himself to write an entire book without his favorite punctuation mark!
Overuse of Particular Words or Phrases
Many of us have pet words. One of mine is “key” as in, “The key thing to know about me is I like books.” Or, “The key to solving the problem is to make a list.” Or, “The key element in banana bread is not bananas, but rather applesauce.” You get the key point… (“Particular” seems to be a particular pet as well.)
A special area to search for pet words is “trendy” language. Um, anyone else tired of the phrase “lean into”? How about “paradigm shift” or “[anything]-hacking”? Ever played “Buzzword BINGO”? [Hand up.]
Finally, be on the lookout for unusual phrases. For instance, in a book translated from Swedish, the translator used the idiom “waiting for the other shoe to drop”—twice. If this phrase had been used once, it would have been fine, but it is such an uncommon phrase in standard American English that the second instance jumped out at the reader screaming, “This translator is not a native speaker of American English!”
The point is not that these words or phrases are bad or wrong; it’s that due to the context around them, they pull the reader out of the intended message (or story).
The remedy: Make a list of words you tend to overuse (get help from a fellow writer to identify them if needed). As you edit, search for your crutch words and replace them with something more suitable. Be on the lookout for trendy or unusual phrases; in this case, a list may be harder to generate, so find a fresh set of eyes to flag distractions for you.
Misuse of Words
While overuse of words is not necessarily wrong, misuse is.
A common error that gets an eyeroll from me is the use of “lay” rather than “lie.” “Come lay down with me.” Ouch! Chickens lay eggs, and one lays a book on the table, but one lies down in bed. (Of course, the confusion comes from the past tense of lie: “Yesterday I lay down for a nap.”) I’ve got the lie/lay thing down, but effect/affect, farther/further, and marinade/marinate always require a dictionary consultation. (That last one’s kind of odd, I know.)
A commonly misused phase that gets an eyeroll from my philosophy-minor husband is “begs the question.” “Begging the question” is a logical fallacy (circular thinking), but the phrase is often used to mean “suggests the question.” Advice: Stay away from “begging the question” completely; correct or incorrect, it adds confusion.
The remedy: There are plenty of lists of commonly confused words online; get familiar with them and make a list of your own foibles. Use a grammar checker to flag potential errors, though my grammar-checker motto is “trust but verify” (they’re not always right).
Overuse and misuse of words and punctuation marks are easy enough to fix. The inclusion of unnecessary information causes a bit more difficulty.
Most of us are tempted, at least occasionally, to include information that is interesting but not relevant to our message. We include unneeded data, new ideas, discarded ideas, side notes. I like to call these “shiny objects,” “pretty butterflies,” or “rabbit holes.” They take your reader out of the message. What happens if you can’t get the reader back?
My special bugaboo in this regard is parenthetical statements. I love a good parenthetical for a snarky aside (you know what I’m talking about, yah?) or that extra, interesting tidbit that I just can’t help but include (like Melville). Sometimes I choose to keep parentheticals because they are fun, but more often I include them in early stages of writing, then chop them in editing.
However, it’s not just parentheticals that are a problem—it is the extraneous information, no matter what form. Now I don’t mean unnecessary words (i.e., repetitive or redundant language); that’s a different issue. I mean unneeded information.
When it is critical to get your message across, you must eliminate unnecessary information. Remove anything that takes the reader out of the message and out of the proper context. (And, may I say, this applies especially when you are writing for an executive audience. Heh.)
Getting rid of unneeded information may be the most important advice in this post, but it’s also sometimes the most difficult. It can be hard to predict what is required, and what will lead your readers down a rabbit hole. The trick is to balance 1) maintaining the readers’ focus on what you want them to read, know, or do, with 2) including nice-to-know information as well as, frankly, injecting some personality into your writing.
The remedy: Get an experienced second reader or editor who knows your audience. Ask them to flag anything (words, phrases, statements, data) that raises questions, causes them to start arguing mentally on an irrelevant point, or takes them off focus. Listen to what they tell you and edit accordingly.
There is rarely one right way to write. When you’re writing something casual, the distractions I’ve noted here or in my prior blogs may be less important; don’t fret overmuch. When you have something critical, however, to improve the clarity and focus of your message:
- Keep a running list of your known problems areas, and
- Have a trusted second reader to alert you to things you can’t see yourself.
By eliminating distractions, you have a better chance of getting your message across. And if you can do that, what wonderful things could happen?