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Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very;” your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.

Mark Twain

I spent a few days last week reading my blog. From beginning to end. Every post, some in depth, some more briskly. Every post is a good 156 spanning 26 months. A lot of words.

I’ve seized it as an opportunity to review how I write, and in the last few posts I’ve seen a distinctly different style take hold.

Yusuf’s point about information entropy is being taken to heart.

I used to write incredibly long posts. Tremendous detail, on obscure topics that interested me. Long paragraphs with complex sentences. Lots of redundant language and cumbersome phrasing. Almost compulsive use of weak hedged words; language designed to qualify speculation and present a plethora of perspectives rather then any position I hold.

In one respects things won’t change.

I’m still going to talk about the wide range of topics that interest me. I’ll still wantonly bounce of topics and clatter into ideas. That’s the reason d’etre of this blog. To see what falls when I hit hard the walls of my mind.

The rest had to go.

The long paragraphs have been axed. There’s an intimidation factor in seeing a wall of text. More importantly, it means I’ve not thought the point out with sufficient clarity. When I have, paragraphs get shorter.

Now, any paragraph longer then five lines is asked to justify itself. There has to be a strong reason for the whole paragraph to cling together. If there isn’t, I find a semi-natural break for paragraph mitosis.

I’ve tidied up my language to curb redundancy in word order and sentence structure. I’m prone to write phrases like “…and perhaps this is happening because..”, which can be trimmed to “this is because” or even “because”. This verbal circumcision makes the sentence punchier by removing the prevarication and hedged language.

Now, qualified language can be used, it can be necessary, but like long paragraphs it has to be justified.

I’ve created a black list of words. From now on, no post is allowed to contain the following words:

often
perhaps
maybe
actually
very
usually

In addition, the following words require strong justification. Namely that I can’t rewrite the sentence and preserve the intended meaning without them. Dark grey listed if you will. These are:

so many
must
all
be

They’re crutch words, designed to bridge bad writing. They take punchiness out of a sentence and replace it with a bland over-engineered smoothness. When included they make for unexceptional writing.

I remove these words by running a Control+F search in Windows Live Writer before posting. If found they can be deleted of the bat without affecting the sentence. If they can’t easily be removed, rewriting to minimize their use or eliminate them is the next port of call.

A further change has been the elimination of adjectives. Adjectives are effective if used judiciously, but overuse cheapens them. They should be deployed only when critical. When the need is overwhelming to ensure that a noun is seen in a certain light. It is better to trust the reading mind to interpret then to dictate for no reason.

The final change I’ve made is the switch from simile to metaphor. Similes present weak images, without the impact needed in smaller sentences and shorter paragraphs. This has ‘like’ perilously close to inclusion on the grey list, a promotion I haven’t decided upon yet.

This change, unlike its companions, was driven by reading a biography of Winston Churchill, one of the most effective writers and speakers in the English language. One marked thing about Churchill is his thundering use of metaphor. A simile by contrast is rare.

On the whole these have been changes easy to make. They’ve required minor tweaks to my style, but they’ve had a profound impact on the final result. I find the new posts are more readable, crisp and to the point. They’re more enjoyable for me to read, reread and read again.

Which is a true mark of mature writing.

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2 Comments

  1. If I am to adopt your black/grey lists, I will probably get stuck in every post trying to rewrite my sentences for the millionth time. Come to think it, “probably” is quite similar to “maybe” and “perhaps” and it will have to go. 🙂

    When I blog, the only thing I’m very conscious of is the number of times I use “I”. Some time ago it had occurred to me that my writing contains a lot of this single-letter word as well as the associated “my” and “me”. So far I have not been able to drive them away, as you can tell by reading these short paragraphs.

    I should practice writing (= blog) more often.

    • Idetrorce
    • Posted December 16, 2007 at 2:29 pm
    • Permalink

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce


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