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As tempting as it is, I’m not going to gun for buzzwords today. (But you can read a great post about ridding yourself of business buzzwords at QuinnCreative, if you’d like.)

avoiding the word mazeInstead, I’m highlighting five common phrases that are guaranteed to clunk up business writing, and give you some substitutes for cleaner, clearer prose.

  1. “In order to.” This one tops my personal pet peeve chart. Lawyers in particular suffer a serious addiction to this phrase, but they are not alone. It’s verbal hesitation. Get to the point, eliminate the crutch of “in order,” and simply use “to.” Instant, painless verbal de-cluttering.
  2. “Despite the fact that.” This phrase nearly always results in tortured sentence construction, as in “Despite the fact that the defendant had notice that her conduct was unwelcome, she continued asking the plaintiff out on dates.” Bleah. Instead, use “even though” or “although.” So the improved sentence would read: “Even though the defendant knew the plaintiff did not want to date her, she continued asking him out on dates.” (Bonus points if you can tell me the other problem with the first sentence.)
  3. “In connection with.” If you want to sound like a stuffy old coot, be sure to use this phrase. Otherwise, “about,” “with,” or “concerning” will do nicely instead. Be careful with “concerning,” though, if wordiness is your Achilles’ heel; “concerning” often spawns complex sentence contortions if you don’t keep a sharp eye on it.
  4. “As such.” What does this phrase mean? Seriously. It’s filler, more throat clearing, and does not advance your point. Delete it, and say what you need to say.
  5. “For the most part.”  This is a verbal hedge. Using it signals uncertainty to your audience, and most of the time, you want to sound confident and assured. So drop “for the most part.” If you must qualify, try “usually” or “typically.”

If you simply can’t write without one of these phrases, drop me a line, and I’ll gladly help you figure out the fix.

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, trainer, and editor who thinks that simplifying your life includes simplifying your writing. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions.biz.

I text (oh my, am I really using “text” as a verb? sigh) my 11-year old niece occasionally, plus a friend, my sisters, and my husband. Until the lines die at the Apple store for the iPhone, texting is a laborious thing for me. I use an aged Motorola phone, whose software designers should be sentenced to use their product for three more years. In short, it’s not a device that lends itself to texting.

And that is good, very good. Since texting isn’t easy on this phone, I find myself compressing wordy phrases often. Like so many lawyers, I was trained in law school and in practice to use complicated grammar and words to express complicated ideas. And it’s a habit that creeps inexorably into other writing (see what I mean?).

But texting makes me ruthless in word choice, because I don’t feel like typing one more character than I must on my craptastic phone.

I’m flirting with opening a Twitter account, so that all 37 of the people I know in the world can sign up to read my sage, delightful observations of 140 characters or less. That’s right, Twitter limits entries to 140 characters. (So you know, 140 characters takes you to roughly the end of the first sentence in this paragraph.)

This is a fantastic discipline for lawyers. You must be concise, or you’re cut off. There’s no judge who can grant you an extension. The software doesn’t care.

I’m not alone in seeing the value for writers. The Huffington Post’s Rachel Sklar is all for Twittering, as she discussed in a Washington Post article about Twittering from the Democratic convention:

Sklar loves the haikulike restrictions, “posting my real-time thoughts, impressions and wisecracks without having to worry about fleshing them out for a proper blog post. Working within that 140-character limit — and still managing to get out your observation, your comment, your setup and punch line or what have you — is great training for a writer.”

For those of you who couldn’t care less about Twittering or texting, there’s a wonderful substitute called flash fiction. You don’t even need a computer for it. Flash fiction requires you to write an entire story with a set number of words, say, 100. If the class instructor is feeling generous, you might get 150 words. Few things will make you more aware of word choices. It’s an excellent way to practice Strunk & White‘s timeless edict: Eliminate needless words.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer, writer, and editor who loves new technologies that actually help people get where they want to go in life. She will someday soon achieve iPhone nirvana. She can be reached at jalvey[at]wordsolutions[dot]biz.

I see this a lot in law firm newsletters, articles and alerts: long, dull headlines. So what? you ask. It’s the substance that’s important. The headline is a detail.

Of course the substance of a legal article is important. But without a good, grabby headline, will your audience bother to read your pearls of wisdom? Probably not.

Newsletters are media, and the competition for all kinds of media attention these days is fierce. In our internet/smartphone overloaded work-life, newsletters are just one more drag on a client’s time. Will clients click your newsletter email open, or maybe download a competitor’s podcast and go for a run, instead? The answer may hinge on your headlines.

So here are my top three rules of good headlines:

  1. Six words or less. Oh, I can hear the protests already: Six words aren’t enough to convey the nuance of the subject. That’s quite true, but completely beside the point. Headlines are not meant to convey nuance; their job is to lure readers into the story.
  2. Tell readers why they should care. Here’s a typical headline that lawyers write: Supreme Court Decides Smith Case. Well, that’s nice and all, but it gives no context or clue about why your client needs to be concerned. Compare to: Supreme Court Says Reimbursement Formula Flawed. Which would give your client a reason to read further?
  3. Be clever, cute or provocative, but not too much. I’ll confess I sometimes go overboard on clever or provocative headlines. Particularly in the age of search engine optimization (SEO), you’re often better off sticking to the facts, ma’am, just the facts, so your article will appear higher in the search rankings. Yet your readers are intelligent people who appreciate wit and humor, so use those on occasion, especially for feature (as opposed to news) articles. Here’s a great headline from a recent article (subscription required) by an employment lawyer: Management: No Jerks Allowed. How much more enticing is that headline than something like “Rudeness Among Managers Leads to Legal Liability”?

Writing good headlines is an art, not a science. Don’t get frustrated if your initial attempts aren’t home runs. Keep trying, and you’ll improve.

Jennifer Alvey is a legal editor and writer who has edited thousands of headlines. One that sticks in her mind is this one: Call the Doctor, I Think I Am Gonna Crash: What You Need to Know, But Are Afraid to Ask, About the New Designated Doctor and Required Medical Examinations Rules and Processes. She put that one on an emergency fast, and it got better. Contact Jennifer at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.