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Writing Gooder, Part 3

December 1, 2015 1 Comment RSS Feed

One day soon, Twitter, Snapchat, and kitten memes will eradicate all other forms of web writing, forcing technical writers to find jobs as sideshow freaks. Until then, I present three more ways to tighten the screws on loose and lazy writing. Go here for Part 1, and here for Part 2.

#4 “Which” and “that” are not identical twins

This is difficult to explain without venturing into Ye Olde Festival of Yawns, but here it goes anyway.

“Which” and “that” are not interchangeable. They are mere cousins, and they’ve grown tired the Internet’s relentless abuse. Particularly “which,” which hasn’t bothered anyone since The Witch and Which Incident of 1987.

Use “that” when only some of whatever comes after “that” applies to the subject. For example, “The shopping carts that are empty make me sad.” In this example, only some of the carts are empty; some are full. If you use “which, “everything changes: “The shopping carts, which are empty, make me sad.” Now, all of the carts are empty, and they all make me sad.

Also note the comma. “Which” always requires a comma in this context; “that” never uses one, even against the advice of its dear mother. Will flawless execution of this rule guarantee award-winning writing? Sadly, no…but it will cure malaria, the common cold, and perhaps even prevent another Transformers movie.

#5 Say “goodbye” to -ize and soulless buzzwords

Don’t let the culture of stale corporate buzzwords dictate your vocabulary.

Lazy and semi-competent writers love to apply the “-ize” suffix to nouns, turning them into pretentious verbs. Synergy becomes synergize; final becomes finalize; custom becomes customize. The granddaddy of them all is utilize, which is criminal attempt to inflate the word use.

Strunk and White say “be suspicious of -ize; let your ear and your eye guide you,” and I agree. In most cases, a strong verb already exists; it only takes a little effort and determination to find it.

While we’re at it, stop with verbiage. The primary definition: ”many words with little or confusing content.” I see and hear writers referring to their own writing as verbiage, thereby insulting their own work. Use language or copy instead, unless sounding like a bloated corporate windbag is your thing.

Buzzwords become clichés, and clichés replace thinking. These vague, phony words and phrases are transparent attempts to hide half-baked ideas:

  • game changer: Two types of people use this phrase: misguides people and people that can’t make decisions.
  • going forward: Do you ever make plans for the past? Kill this useless phrase.
  • impact: Used by people that don’t understand the difference between affect and effect. Overused and better for inducing eye-rolls and drool.
  • impactful: I will burn down the Internet right here and now.
  • leverage: Use as a noun or, better yet, not at all. Avoid this lifeless cliché.
  • out-of-the-box: Obsolete way to refers to factory versions of software. Diction for dinosaurs.
  • outside-the-box: It means “creative,” which is ironic, considering the term itself is anything but.
  • reach out: Unless you’re a lifeguard or a trapeze artist, contact sounds better in almost all situations.
  • synchronize: Pretentious and vague. Use this only when you want to sound like you’re hiding your ignorance or a bad plan.
  • synergy, synergize: see synchronize.
  • this day and age: Lazy, overused, trite way of trying to sound modern or “cutting edge.” Use when you hope to bore your reader with cookie-cutter terminology.
  • via: Overused and sloppy. Use only when referring to people or data literally moving from one place to another. In all other situations, use along, by, from, on, through, or with.

#6 Omit needless words

Yes, it’s back after leading the charge in Part 1! Honor the Alpha and Omega of writing and make your momma proud. Useless words also cause the melting of the polar ice caps and Miley Cyrus, so learn to love your Delete key.

Words make brain hurt

I could go on about commas, run-on sentences, and my personal vendetta against the population’s determination to overuse the phrase “I know, right?”. I could, but grammar easily overstays its welcome and so I’m putting it back in its cage for now.

No doubt I’ve inspired you to purchase The Elements of Style, lock yourself into your attic, and read it cover-to-cover. Or not. As my English teacher, Conrad Vachon, said once, this probably isn’t my “best work” either, but if you made it this far, then I owe it all to him.

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