“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Most designers will recognise the quote, but it’s a shame so many fail to follow its advice in their writing. Good writing conveys information more clearly, of course, but the reader isn’t the only beneficiary. Writing also makes us better thinkers. Even a talented wordsmith must first clarify his thoughts and eliminate ambiguity to make a convincing argument.
Editing is integral to this thought process. Yet we often overlook it as the unglamorous relation; perhaps it doesn’t flatter our mental model of the creative scribe giving birth to a masterpiece.
Designers know well that we often miss problems until we review our intended solutions. Similarly, we may think we have a clear argument until the blank page forces us to find the right language to describe it. Therefore, just as we appreciate the power of iteration in design, we should embrace the power of editing. In essence, editing is critique for the written word: review, question, revise. Like its design counterpart, it involves attention to detail, viewing the problem from many angles, and even the familiar outflanking death-spiral: “Why is this section even here? Why am I even writing this piece?”
Here are a few tips I’ve found useful when bringing the iterative mentality to the written word.
The best writers are inquisitive readers, just as the best designers are attentive users. We need only look at our terminology to see the parallels: “design vocabulary”, “design literacy”. So a good writer reads incessantly. Absorb different styles and approaches: quality, trash, everything. Find writers whose style you admire, and consider what attracts you to their style. Find writers whose style you loathe, and again consider why. Deconstruct their language to understand better how to use it in useful ways.
Make every word matter
Every wasted word is an unnecessary design element. In fixed-length pieces, you lose space to tell your story, but even in open pieces an unnecessary word distracts the reader’s focus, diluting your message. The data-ink ratio isn’t just for graphics.
This rule applies at many levels in parallel.
- If a word doesn’t notably improve a sentence, remove it.
- If a sentence doesn’t notably improve a paragraph, remove it.
- If a paragraph doesn’t notably improve a text, remove it.
Screenwriters know that every line, page and scene should either
- advance the storyline, or
- provide depth to the characters and setting so that the storyline can advance later.
Adopt a similar mentality.
Cut adjectives and adverbs
Superfluous adjectives and adverbs are the staple of the pedestrian writer. It’s easy to see why: they appear to add spice to bland text. But adjectives and adverbs are often mere props, and editors I’ve worked with tend to slaughter them without mercy. This can be alarming: without this seasoning, where is my flavour going to come from?
The answer? Replace your adjective and adverbs with richer nouns and verbs.
- “Apple’s auteur”, not “Apple’s demanding CEO”.
- “The barman snarled”, not “The barman replied gruffly”.
- “An environmental obscenity”, not “A dreadful environmental accident”.
Memorable nouns are the nodes in your story. The static components; the space; the architecture. Nouns form mental models and associations: Apple’s leader is talented, painstaking and difficult.
Lively verbs describe the interactions in your story. The dialog, the motion, the time. They drive the text, giving it momentum and feel.
A broad vocabulary – a happy by-product of regular reading – will help you choose better nouns and verbs, but don’t be ashamed of a good thesaurus too. However, the most convincing language may not lie in synonyms but in creative parallels that help the reader to make unexpected associations. So use your inventive, lateral instincts to think of descriptive metaphorical words. A lothario might ooze across the dancefloor. A face mightmelt into tears.
Active, not passive
Active verbs encourage vigorous writing. It’s dogmatic to decree the passive a sin, but you should have a good reason in mind if you use it. Scientific writing rewards use of the passive – presumably to discourage the appearance of individuality (and hence subjectivity) within the scientific process – but non-scientific writing needs individuality. So rephrase passive sentences by focusing on the subject of the sentence – the thing or person that’s doing something. Then rewrite the phrase, putting the subject first and choosing the verb that correctly follows.
- “Designers overestimate the power of research”, not “The power of research is overestimated by the design community”.
Kill these redundant phrases on sight:
- “blah blah blah is that” – for example “One such issue is that…”
- “In my opinion” – It’s obviously your opinion, you’re the writer.
- Clichés – The Comic Sans of writing.
- “As X, we Y” – “As UX people, we must have empathy”, and so on. A well-targeted piece doesn’t need to remind its readers who they are; so know your audience and address it directly.
From the Longman Guide To Revising Prose:
“One of the factors that limits and warps the development of a theory of composition and style by teachers of the subject is the tendency to start with failed or inadequate writing”
Here, we have a string of prepositional phrases (phrases beginning with “in”, “of”, “by”, “with” etc) linked by a non-descriptive verb “is”. It’s easy to inadvertently chain together these monster sentences, but they’re a clear warning sign of overloading. To untangle the knot, follow the same principle as for passives: identify the subject first, then the natural verb. Split into multiple sentences if you like. Here’s one way to rewrite the sentence above:
“Teachers tend to start with inadequate writing. This limits students’ understanding of composition and style.”
(Note the apostrophe. If you’re not certain of the rules of apostrophes, learn them now.)
Singulars and plurals
Look at the subject of your sentence, and make sure that your verbs and pronouns match.
- “The user (singular) might not understand why she (singular) needs to enter her password”, not
- “The user (singular) might not understand why they (plural) need to enter their password”.
English has no gender-neutral singular pronoun. Cater for this by alternating gender where appropriate – just don’t change someone’s gender mid-paragraph.
For added bonus points, remember that in British English, companies and teams are usually plural: “Microsoft have released an update”. In American English, they’re singular: “Microsoft has released an update.” (Also note the placement of punctuation around inverted commas. The idiosyncrasies of global grammar.)
In short, choose the simple explanation over the complex one. Again, a sentiment we recognise in design, but it should also apply to language. Simplify, simplify. This doesn’t spell the end of rich verbs and nouns – instead, use Occam’s Razor to eliminate redundancy and buzzwords:
- “Use”, not “Utilise”
- “Quickly”, not “In a timely manner”.
The design industry is, of course, as ridden with jargon and gobbledygook as any specialist group.
- “Make the logo bigger”, not “Increase the visual hierarchy of the masthead brandmark”
- “Make it obvious what to do”, not “Expose the primary function of the interface”.
The Plain English Campaign offers a range of free guides that can help those with a jargon affliction.
Just like music, language has a tempo. An album of songs at the same speed quickly becomes boring, so use different sentence lengths to vary the pace of your writing.
The paragraph on the right mixes long, detailed sentences and short, punchy ones. Different sentence lengths give rhythm and variety to your writing. So mix it up.
Proofing your work
Some people say writing should be like speech. I don’t agree – I believe writing presents more scope for density and precision – but a writer must find her own voice.
However, the common tip of reading your work aloud is definitely helpful. It will help you to draw out clumsy phrases, and show where you need to quicken the pace or elaborate on a point. Some swear by reading their work backwards, from the last paragraph to the first. Other suggestions include proofing on paper, or changing the typeface to force you to re-parse the text.
What works for you?
For further advice, I recommend Austin Govella’s (More) tips for writing well.