With Junk Free June coming to an end, I got to thinking about how it might relate to me and what I do; how I might make the world a less junk-filled place.
Anyone who knows me knows I love food and, honestly, the junkier the better. I’m the last person who should be advising anyone about healthy eating. Except maybe my kids. Yeah, don’t listen to them.
So, I thought I’d focus on something I’m a bit more qualified to provide advice about.
Check out these five simple ways to eliminate ‘junk’ from your writing.
There are some words I look for in everything I write. They’re words that so easily slip into our writing but add nothing. Here are a few common ones.
- That or then: If a sentence still makes sense after removing ‘that’, delete it.
When describing a sequence of events, get rid of ‘then’ or try replacing with ‘and’. Nine times out of ten you’ll be surprised what an improvement it makes to the flow of your writing.
- Really or very: The below quote from the 1989 film Dead Poets Society explains this one perfectly.
“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys - to woo women - and, in that endeavour, laziness will not do.”
― N.H. Kleinbaum, Dead Poets Society
- Completely, absolutely, totally, literally: Most of the time these words aren’t adding any additional information to your writing. Saying you are ‘completely exhausted’ is no different from saying you’re ‘exhausted’, it’s just an extra word.
Words such as actually, probably, definitely, basically and certainly are much the same. If your sentence makes sense without them, leave them out.
Long, unwieldy sentences
In his book, Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach, Paul Anderson recommends varying the lengths of sentences. Use short sentences to emphasise a point; use longer sentences to connect ideas.
That said, long, unwieldy sentences will lose your reader. Make it easy for them to understand what you’re trying to tell them.
Limit your sentences to one or two key ideas. Don’t repeat yourself. Consider whether your sentence could easily be broken into two. Look for instances where a single word could replace a two or three-word phrase.
Active vs Passive voice
Research shows readers comprehend active voice faster than passive voice. So, what’s the difference?
The focus of an active sentence is the subject. The focus of a passive sentence is the action.
Active: John ate the bag of chips.
Passive: The bag of chips was eaten by John.
Which one did you prefer reading?
Jargon is words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.
If your audience can’t understand your writing, it’s not good writing. Ask yourself: “Is this how I’d explain this to my grandma?”. If the answer is no, chances are it’s not how you should explain it to your reader either. It’s likely to push them away and have them seek the same information elsewhere.
Jargon doesn’t make you sound smarter; it makes you seem out of touch with your audience. The English language is large and varied, make full use of it and find a way to say the same thing in a way everyone will understand.
Be a rebel with a cause
Despite everything I’ve said above, sometimes rules are made to be broken. There will be times when an unnecessary ‘then’ improves the flow of your sentence, or when you want to use passive voice to emphasise the action of the sentence, rather than the doer.
So, be a rebel. A rebel for the cause of good writing.