Josh Bernoff, who specializes in sniffing out and calling attention to “weasel words” and outright bull in corporate and political writing, has created a list of writers’ resolutions. He’s pegged them to the new year, but they’re well worth your attention any day.
He gives a couple of shout-outs to the fine art of editing. We writers either do too much of it (editing while we write—no faster way to kill your creativity) or too little. Bernoff points out that probably the greatest volume of writing any of us does occurs in emails. But who edits emails? Even I don’t, mostly—and I am fully aware of the power of the second draft.
I’m not going to go through all of his suggestions—please read the blog post yourselves. But I want to highlight the final one of his writers’ resolutions because I think it may be the most important:
10. Write to create action, or don’t write at all.
Every time you write something, ask, “what do I want the reader to do?”
If the answer is “I don’t know,” or “Nothing,” then delete, don’t send, don’t publish.
Business writing exists for one purpose: to create a change in the reader. So don’t waste time writing anything that creates no change.
Writers’ resolutions: When not to write
That “or don’t write at all” may be difficult if you’re a corporate writer whose boss is breathing down your neck, wondering where the draft is. After all, it’s your job to write, isn’t it?
Well, it’s part of your job, certainly. But the other part is to work with your speaker, or whoever’s name goes in the by-line, to hone the message. And that includes making sure the message is unique, contains a call to action, and makes sense.
We’ve all encountered clients who believe that every word they speak contains pearls of wisdom, when all they’ve done is string together a series of clichés. I once asked a guy who ran a mutual fund what made his fund unique. In my memory I see him puffing up his chest—he was proud of his work, proud to explain it to little old me. And he unleashed a paragraph of unmatched profundity. He thought. He deflated quickly when I translated: “Oh. You mean, ‘Buy low, sell high.'”
Beware of jargon and what my old boss used to call $5 words—I’d up that to $50, what with the way education costs have soared. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. In my experience, if someone says something you don’t understand, there’s at least a 50% chance that they don’t understand it fully, either.
Resolve to use your powers for good
Writing is not just a job; it’s a responsibility. We shape people’s perceptions of the world around them. We can use tools of our craft to create honest narratives and arguments, or to skew and shape them to fit a dishonest agenda.
I think the most important writers’ resolution is honesty. Let’s all recommit ourselves to using our talents to make the world a more decent and honest place in 2017.