WRITE with nouns and verbs is some of the best writing advice anyone can give you. These are concrete words with power and strength. When you use detail and facts to get across your message — and resort to adjectives and adverbs with caution — your writing will have greater clarity and impact. Used liberally, adjectives and adverbs weaken writing and devalue your writing reputation.
ADJECTIVESWhen we write, we paint pictures with words — not just in novels and poetry, but even in the most serious of business documents. One of our biggest goals is clarity. We want all readers to see the same picture that we have in our minds. The use of adjectives often gets in our way, creating confusion and possible disappointment.
A large pay rise…
A small drop in the company’s share price…Ideally, we want concrete facts and detail in our work, not adjectives, because we’ll interpret adjectives according to how we, as individuals, see the world.
A large pay rise will carry a different meaning to a care worker than it does to a high-flying CEO. A small drop in a share price is equally ambiguous.
A 10 per cent pay rise with a bonus equivalent to a month’s pay…
A six per cent fall in the company’s share price…Facts and detail show you as someone who does their homework, who deals with questions before they arise, and who bases their opinions and recommendations on concrete knowledge. This approach shows an awareness of what your readers need to know. They will thank you for it.
Falling back on adjectives with little thought will flag you as someone satisfied with vague writing. Of course there will be times when you need an adjective. For instance, you may be able to justify red as an adjective. But can you push it further. Is it pillar-box red, burgundy, or maroon?
Remember that you’re not writing a whodunit crime novel. And even if you were, you’d still opt for detail over vagueness.
ADVERBSBestselling novelist Stephen King, a man who is no slouch when it comes to writing well, is on a crusade against adverbs. And I'm on his side.
Adverbs are words that modify our verbs and adjectives, or sometimes even other adverbs. They’re easy to spot, and often end in –ly. Quickly, completely, totally. Most of the time, they miss their target.
Imagine this as a sentence in a business proposal.
If we act quickly, we can completely eliminate the threat from our competitors and totally dominate the market.This hyperbolic sentence is weak and flabby for a mix of reasons, and seems naive and juvenile. The writer seems keen to exaggerate an opportunity, and that may lead to a disastrous business decision.
First, the word quickly is vague. Do we mean, today, tomorrow, or within a year? Each of us will have a different interpretation of what this means. If we expect to build our business with everyone puling in the same direction, shouldn't we expect to be precise in our writing?
Second, eliminate means to expel, remove, or get rid of something. If we aren't eliminating something, we’ll be reducing or lessening the threat from competitors. Don't mislead colleagues by overstating your case. You'll lose their trust if you exaggerate your case or show your ignorance of a word's meaning. Completely is redundant.
Third, dominate means to have power and influence over something. Do we mean control here, or simply that we’d be in a commanding position, one where we have influence but don't quite call all of the shots? Perhaps we'll control 60 per cent of a given market? If you can add specifics, say so. Of course, adding detail demands that you can back up what you say. Do you have the courage to put your head above the parapet?
When we want or expect colleagues to take action based on our words, we should be precise in our thinking and in how we express our ideas. Occasions will arise when you can justify the use of an adverb, but be tough when using them — and explain the need for vagueness where you have no other choice.
Your colleagues and clients may not mention your use of vague words as a reason for criticising your report, or for giving it less than their full support. But flabby words show flabby thinking. That's what they'll object to, even if they don't express it.
Respect everyone's ability to see the flaws in your work and you'll raise your game. Everyone needs what writer Ernest Hemingway called 'a fail-safe bullshit detector'.
Push every word to justify its place in your writing, and you'll gain clarity. Remember that the first person you have to convince is you. The objective version of you, not the one who is easy to please. Make every word count and you'll present your work with the confidence that you have looked into every possibility and locked down all options.