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How to say nothing in 500 words
Understanding these definitive writing tenets will change how you communicate
There’s a fantastic essay by Paul McHenry: How To Say Nothing In 500 Words. Ironically, it’s 10 pages! You can read the full thing as PDF here, but I’m about to save you the effort in a fraction of the time.
The web has set the written word on fire and despite proliferation of video, text continues to be the world’s dominant content format. It’s easily skimable, accessible at all times across all devices, and just more efficient both to create and consume. With that: quality writing is a rare and desirable skill which only continues to increase in value. It is what allows media to effectively spread ideas, amplifies a company’s ability to sell products and enables professionals of all industry and variety to be persuasive.
Anyway, on to the meat of today’s post: a friend of mine Maki, who I’ve sadly lost contact with and his site no longer exists, previously summarized McHenry’s essay into 9 easily consumable concepts. I ran these on my old marketing blog years ago (with permission) but am sharing again as they’re so timelines. Keep these in mind as when every company is a media company, effective communication is an almost unfair advantage.
The 9 definitive concepts for effective writing:
Avoid the obvious content.“Say the assignment is college football. Say that you’ve decided to be against it. Begin by putting down the arguments that come to your mind. Now when you write your paper, make sure that you don’ t use any of the material on this list. If these are the points that leap to your mind, they will leap to everyone else’s too. Be against college football for some reason or reasons of your own. If they are keen and perceptive ones, that’s splendid. But even if they are trivial or foolish or indefensible, you are still ahead so long as they are not everybody else’s reasons too.”
Take the less usual side. “One rather simple way of getting into your paper is to take the side of the argument that most of the citizens will want to avoid. They are intellectual exercises, and it is legitimate to argue now one way and now another, as debaters do in similar circumstances. Always take the side that looks to you hardest, least defensible. It will almost always turn out to be easier to write interestingly on that side.”
Slip out of abstraction. “Look at the work of any professional writer and notice how constantly he is moving from the generality, the abstract statement, to the concrete example, the facts and figures, the illustrations. For most the soundest advice is to be seeking always for the picture, to be always turning general remarks into seeable examples. Don’t say, “Sororities teach girls the social graces.” Say, “Sorority life teaches a girl how to carry on a conversation while pouring tea, without sloshing the tea into the saucer.”
Get rid of obvious padding. “Instead of stuffing your sentences with straw, you must try steadily to get rid of the padding, to make your sentences lean and tough… You dig up more real content. Instead of taking a couple of obvious points off the surface of the topic and then circling warily around them for six paragraphs, you work in and explore, figure out the details. You illustrate.”
Call a fool a fool. “If he was a fool, call him a fool. Hedging the thing about with “in-my-opinion’s” and “it-seems-to-me’s” and “as-I-see-it’s” and “at-least-from-my-point-of-view’s” gains you nothing. Delete these phrases whenever they creep into your paper. Decide what you want to say and say it as vigorously as possible, without apology and in plain words. Writing in the modern world, you cannot altogether avoid modern jargon. But you can do much if you will mount guard against those roundabout phrases, those echoing polysyllables that tend to slip into your writing to rob it of its crispness and force.”
Beware of Pat Expressions. “Other things being equal, avoid phrases like “other things being equal.” Those sentences that come to you whole, or in two or three doughy lumps, are sure to be bad sentences. They are no creation of yours but pieces of common thought floating in the community soup… No writer avoids them altogether, but good writers avoid them more often than poor writers.”
Colorful Words. “Some words are what we call “colorful.” By this we mean that they are calculated to produce a picture or induce an emotion. They are dressy instead of plain, specific instead of general, loud instead of soft. Thus, in place of “Her heart beat,” we may write, “her heart pounded, throbbed, fluttered, danced.” Instead of “He sat in his chair,” we may say, “helounged, sprawled, coiled.”
Colored Words.. “When we hear a word, we hear with it an echo of all the situations in which we have heard it before. The word mother, for example, has, for most people, agreeable associations. When you hear mother you probably think of home, safety, love, food, and various other pleasant things..The question of whether to use loaded words or not depends on what is being written.”
Colorless Words. “A pet example is nice, a word we would find it hard to dispense with in casual conversation but which is no longer capable of adding much to a description. Colorless words are those of such general meaning that in a particular sentence they mean nothing…Slang adjectives like cool (”That’s real cool”) tend to explode all over the language. They are applied to everything, lose their original force, and quickly die.”
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