January 29, 2013
Writing well is a challenge for all PR practitioners.
There are many reasons why. And there are many rules. One of the most important ones is: Eliminate hyperbolic adjectives, words that too many practitioners believe make their writing more interesting, but actually make it worse.
Reporters, editors and veteran PR writers revere the crystal-clear writing style of journalist and novelist Ernest Hemingway, who won the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature for “his mastery of the art of narrative” and “the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.”
Here are 25 suspect adjectives to avoid, along with reasons why, including sage advice from Hemingway.
Above all, these commonplace descriptors convey clichéd, imprecise meanings for whatever they refer to — products, services, issues, ideas, events, publications or personalities. They exaggerate rather than enlighten, and mask rather than reveal. There are two ways to eliminate them or minimize their impact.
First, don’t use them at all. Instead of describing something as “cutting edge” or “revolutionary” or another of these inflated terms, write something more exacting and concrete. As accomplished writers commonly advise apprentice writers: “Show, don’t tell.”
For example, “X is faster and less expensive than the three best-selling computers in the world,” or “Y is the first North American border security system to use drone technology.” Rather than sketch a fuzzy image with exaggerated language, paint a clear, credible picture with words that portray what makes the subject truly distinctive.
Second, if you must use hyperbolic adjectives (e.g., because your boss or client likes or requires them), then substantiate your intent with a twist on the first suggestion.
For example, immediately after describing scholastic-aptitude-testing software as “groundbreaking” or “next-generation,” follow with a clarifying statement such as, “The software allows students to finish their SATs in half the time that it takes with No. 2 pencils and fill-in forms.” In this instance, more words are better than fewer words.
Regrettably, the use of hyperbolic adjectives will persist in professional public relations as long as writers in the field, especially the new and inexperienced, succumb to prevailing habits that undermine good writing.
Here are four of the most obvious, along with advice on how to minimize their impact:
In their famous mini-writing guide, “The Elements of Style,” authors Strunk and White said, “When you overwrite, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise. A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.”
When George Plimpton interviewed him in the Spring 1958 Paris Review, he said: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.” Because of what we do and are supposed to do as PR writers, we have a particular obligation to heed his words.
At its core, hyperbolic writing is a form of BS, intentionally or not. If you want to write simple, direct, believable communications, then start by eliminating fatuous adjectives.