By Jenna Glatzer
You know how, when you’re watching a speaker, you can tell if he or she is
nervous? There are those tell-tale signs: trembling hands and voice, lack of eye
contact, perspiration, twitches, lots of "ummms," and a myriad of
other idiosyncratic gestures and signs that show he or she is not fully at ease
in front of an audience.
Did you know that I can spot those same tell-tale signs in your writing?
If you’re not completely confident in your skills as a writer, and in what
you’ve written in particular, there are warning signs that can tip off an
editor or reader. I find them in query letters all the time, and, to a lesser
extent, in articles and stories themselves.
The first tip-off? Stilted language.
Stilted language is formal and proper. It employs big words when small ones
would suffice just fine. It "sounds" canned and over-prepared.
Example: "Marjorie was required to submit to a physician’s examination
prior to the interview in which she would be considered for the position."
Doesn’t it sound like the writer is working too hard to impress here? Like
she’s trying to SOUND like a journalist? "Real writers" don’t have
to use big words and serious language to effectively get their point across. In
fact, the more direct and simple the language, the better.
"Marjorie had to go for a doctor’s exam before the company would
consider her for the job."
Is it "dumbing down" your language? No. It’s cutting through the
thicket and allowing the words to flow as naturally as they would in your speech—just
with the benefit of editing. It’s being purposely as understandable as
possible, so that if someone was skimming your query/article quickly, he would
still get the meaning, without tripping over S.A.T. words or unfamiliar
Many professional writers (myself included) believe in writing first drafts
quickly, so as not to give our brains enough time to censor, doubt, and question
each word as it flows through us and onto the paper. When I write, whether it’s
an article, story, or just about anything else, I pretend I’m talking to a
friend. I want my friend to hear about this interesting thing I learned. So, I
tell him in the same manner I’d tell him if he were sitting next to me in my
living room. I don’t need to impress him (or confuse him!) by "spicing
up" my writing with words like "proceed" and "consume"
when the words "go" and "eat" would have worked just fine.
Stilted language is a sign that the writer is not confident that her OWN
words—the words she would really use—are good enough. It’s puffing up the
writing to suit an editor. But think about this: the more formal and convoluted
the language, the harder the editor will have to think just to get through the
piece. Too much thinking equals rejection, unless you’re writing for an
academic or very intellectual market. Editors want clarity. They don’t want to
have to reread sentences to get the meaning of your words. Once the eyes glaze
over, you’re in trouble.
Another giveaway: namby-pamby qualifiers that shift the responsibility for
the statements away from the author. Example: "It seemed to onlookers that
Mayor Ross might possibly have been suffering from exhaustion."
Were you one of the onlookers? Was it pretty obvious that the guy was falling
asleep at the podium? Then don’t shift the observation into a passive voice.
Be confident in your own powers of observation and reasoning. "Mayor Ross
The same goes for overuse of "experts" and studies when none are
needed. We all know that you’re supposed to get eight hours of sleep a night,
right? Then why do people insist on writing, "According to doctors, eight
hours of sleep per night is optimal"? You don’t need the doctor to say
that for you. If you know it to be true, you can skip the "according to
doctors" and get straight to your point, without pulling out of your own
Another example: "usually," "probably," "most
likely," "often," etc. Watch for these words in your writing.
There are times when they’ll be necessary—and, then again, there are plenty
of times when you can omit them.
I once had a psychology professor who prefaced every statement she made with
the words "basically," "usually," or "typically."
It undermined what she was saying, because it felt like she was unsure of
herself. When you write these words, it translates to uncertainty—did Mary
Beth go to church on Sundays, or did she "typically" go to church on
Sundays? If she skipped once or twice a year, she went. You don’t need a
qualifier. If she skipped every other week, then you can add a qualifier.
Be confident in what you are writing. Every time you shift away
responsibility for your words by attributing them to someone else, or by
watering them down with adverbs, you give the reader leeway to question whether
or not you really know what you’re talking about.
Another tip-off: fear of making a point.
Similar to the problem with too many qualifiers, pulling out of your article
too soon shows a lack of confidence in your message. Let’s say you wrote an
entire article about how a certain kind of duck is going extinct. You talked
about all the reasons why it’s happening, and you explained what people can do
to help. Then you end it with a lame conclusion like "Further studies are
needed" or "Experts will continue to examine the causes…" blah,
blah. Again, if you know that what you’ve just said is true, you don’t need
to end off with anything that detracts from your conclusion. Sure, further
studies may be conducted, but does that take anything away from the evidence you’ve
just reported? Let your point come through loud and clear. Make the decision to
take a risk and be accountable for your words.
You don’t need to tie it all up neatly with a moral, a la Aesop’s Fables
("And that’s why we must all stop throwing plastic in the garbage").
Just let the strength of your entire article carry the message—let your
readers come to the conclusions to which you’ve directed them, and don’t let
them second-guess those conclusions by giving a wishy-washy ending.
Be bold. Be confident. And let your very best writing shine through.
Jenna Glatzer is a full-time writer and ghostwriter. You can learn more details at: http://jennaglatzer.com/