I’m talking about the biggest mistakes most people make in their writing that turn their otherwise clear thinking into muddled words on the page. In particular, business communications must be clear and concise because the messages being conveyed are often critical to large audiences. But don’t we want all of our communications to be easily understandable to our readers and listeners? There are legitimate debates about which errors are the most offensive to clear, concise prose, but in my teaching and writing experience, these three are the standouts.
The use of passive voice is “discouraged” in most cases because in a sentence constructed in the passive voice, it’s not clear who’s doing the action. Before you bolt from the room screaming your high school grammar teacher’s name in vain, let’s look at simple examples of an active voice sentence: “Rachel hit the baseball”, versus its passive voice sister: “The baseball is hit by Rachel.” In the first sentence, the subject, or actor of the sentence is Rachel—she’s the one hitting the ball, and the active voice puts the emphasis on her. In the passive voice version, the emphasis is on the “ball”, because we read from left to right, and English sentence structure is Subject-Verb-Object, in that order. Typically, we want to put the emphasis on the subject of the sentence.
The Cure: Think of the traditional meanings of the words active and passive, and you’ll get an accurate feel for how these sentence structures impact your writing. The active voice makes your ideas more direct, clear and forceful, while the passive voice is closer to a shrinking violet—your ideas at least appear less assertive and direct. If you’ve been told you routinely use the passive voice, you should explore this subject in more detail. There are lots of great writing handbooks that provide more detailed explanations, examples and quizzes—just like in high school!
Choosing The Wrong Word
Yes, strong thinkers and writers likely have strong vocabularies, but it’s still easy to confuse the meaning of words. In fact, incorrect word choice is one of the most frequent mistakes writers make. There are the usual suspects, like homonyms (words that sound alike), such as: affect, effect; accept, except; allusion, illusion; capital, capitol; elicit, illicit; principle, principal, for example.
And then there are the words that we tend to use interchangeably, when in fact, they have quite different meanings. For example, disinterested (you don’t have a financial or personal stake in something or you’re impartial or neutral) versus uninterested (you are not interested in or bored by something), literally versus figuratively, and incredible versus incredulous are just a few examples of words even the best writers get confused. The difference is they usually catch these mistake when self-editing or having others proof their work.
The Cure: Make the dictionary a close friend and have another set of eyes routinely review your work.
Isn’t That Just A Cliche?
Here’s another offense that recalls memories of high school English class: Cliche busting exercises. But you were forced to kill those cliches for a reason—they don’t have any real meaning, and you want every word you write to have meaning to your reader. The definition of a cliche is a phrase that draws a clever comparison, but has been so overused in so many scenarios that it’s just plain stale. Cliches, as you might guess, do not add specificity or real evidence to support the points you’re attempting to make. And rarely, if ever, is a cliche the only way to get your point across, like some of my students have tried to insist. You want your communication to surprise and dazzle, not be dull and predictable, so spend the time to think of a fresh way to describe a person, place or thing and your readers will thank you.
The Cure: Review each piece of your writing with one mission: to seek and destroy cliches. Change: “In this day and age” to “Today”, or “Currently”; “Throughout history” to something more specific, like “Over the last two millennia”; and simply eliminate “In conclusion”—the reader will know you’re concluding because the substance of your words will show them—no need to tell them, too.
Review and revise your writing for each of these three clarity killers and your ideas will stand out. And great writing is all about sharing great ideas.