In my last column I unveiled my verbal detox™ concept, which involves using as few words as possible to convey your meaning. I promised some practical examples and an introduction to the man I credit with planting the idea for the verbal detox™ in my mind.
Once written, twice distilled
To recap, going on a verbal detox™ involves strict adherence to Golden Rule #1 by
- using plain synonyms for grand, complex or little-known words
- making each word count
- omitting any words that are not strictly necessary to convey your meaning.
I like the analogy of scientific distillation, which involves increasing the concentration of a substance through evaporation and condensation. Similarly, a verbal detox™ involves extracting the essential meaning of text by deleting all non-essential words and phrases.
Just do it (with due apologies)
Try it. Let’s start small. Take any sign or notice and reduce it to its essence. Here’s an example from a club newsletter.
Putting aside the inexcusable spelling error and the (comically) inappropriate use of ‘up’ after brought, let’s subject this little warning to a verbal detox™. Of course, give this notice to a group of editors and each one will craft a different version. Here is mine:
WE’VE RECEIVED A FINAL NOTICE ABOUT SMOKING INSIDE THE CLUB SO, IF YOU DO, WE’LL FOLLOW OUR DISCIPLINARY PROCESS.
I’ve rewritten the passives as actives (“has been issued with”; will be brought up”), which reduces the word count and draws the reader in. The “Please note” is superfluous and the “people who have been” is redundant as its unlikely the club itself could have done the smoking. The shorter version has more impact and members are therefore more likely to read it and take it seriously.
Another example is an invitation I received with this opening line:
“An invitation is hereby made to you to join us.”
Seriously? What’s wrong with “We invite you to join us” or, even better, “Please join us”?
Needless to say I declined.
I would hereby like to take this opportunity to thank….
I have no time for people who preface what they intend to say with inflated and sycophantic pleasantries. Like interviewers who introduce their questions with
“I’d like to ask you the following question.”
As for the pompous ‘hereby’, I’d love to see its use criminalised. It is always unnecessary, inserted in a misguided effort to make a form appear more formal. (“I hereby authorise.”)
And please don’t tell me what the intention of saying or doing something is. If your writing is clear, your intention will be, too. Lawyers often insert clauses in agreements along the following lines:
The parties intend to record their agreement in writing, as they hereby do.
Sentences like this can be left out in their entirety without making any difference to the rights or obligations of either party. (I’ll look at the effect of the verbal detox™ on the writer’s fees next week.)
My pet peeve, however, is the Oscar winners who blubber and sniff while telling us they’d “like to take the opportunity to thank” their mother. You’ve got the opportunity. The whole world is watching and listening. A simple “Thanks, mom” will do. And you may avoid being silenced by the theme music before you’ve actually thanked your mother.
If you overwrite, I’ll overwrite
I love words that have more than one meaning, the literal and figurative senses linked by a central idea. The word “overwrite” is one of them. It can mean physically (or electronically) writing over text, which is what editors often do to copy that is overwritten in the figurative sense.
Overwriting involves using too many words or writing in an overly elaborate style. In other words (I can never resist that, sorry), it means producing the sort of text that needs to be overwritten.
There once was an old transvestite
I looked up the meaning of ‘overwrite’ in various online dictionaries. The most helpful was the Merriam-Webster, which provided succinct definitions, examples of usage and a list of words that rhyme with ‘overwrite’.
So, although I promised an introduction to the doyen of the verbal detox™ and his work, that will have to wait for my next column. I end instead with a challenge.
Write a limerick with ‘overwrite’ at the end of one of the lines. The editor and publisher of The Media Online are looking for the limerick that best encapsulates the principal of the verbal detox™.
The wittiest limerick wins a fabulous t-shirt and CD from African Cream Music. Post your entries and contact email in the comments section below.
Caryn Gootkin is the owner of In Other Words. Follow her on Twitter @inotherwordscg.