The Problem with Overwriting

True confession: I’m a word nerd. I look up the definition of words regularly. I read voraciously. I dabble in writing. It’s not unusual for me to be on the hunt for the perfect word to describe something better.Words put me in my happy place.

Most people I know are not such fans of words, especially when it means putting words on paper. The writing process is painful for many. I believe this is because people are trying a little too hard.

When it comes to finding the right words, there’s a fallacy people sometimes embrace: for writing to be good, it needs to use sophisticated language. And yet, haven’t most of us been told somewhere along the line to write like we talk? Do we? Not always. In an effort to sound smart when we write, we punch things up with any number of extraneous and flowery descriptors. In the quest for the right words to express a thought, we can often overwrite.

Nowhere is this truer than in the business world. Think about it. At your own organization, consider your vision statement. Does its simplicity and daring inspire your team? Can everyone in your organization actually remember it and repeat it? If not, it may be the result of using too many fancy words.

How about your mission statement? Does it clearly and succinctly describe your reason for existing as an organization?

Does your strategic plan document provide clear direction for your organization? A client once told me that if his 80 year old father couldn’t understand his organization’s strategic plan when he read it, then it was overwritten and needed simplifying. Could your strategic plan pass that test?

What about assessing your marketing materials? Are you talking to your constituents – or just to yourselves? Beware the marketing “blah, blah, blah”.

No matter how complex your mission’s work, it can still be distilled down to its essential elements.

The truth is: straightforward words can have power and punch. And you don’t necessarily need a bunch of them. Here’s an example, courtesy of a writer and former colleague (I’ve held on to her “25 tips for writing well” for years) with a tip to use strong verbs and nouns to keep the message straightforward:

Overwritten version: “The congressman was very angry about the Attorney General’s unflattering statement indicating that he was lying.”

Straightforward version: “The congressman resented the Attorney General’s insinuation that he was lying.”

Great word choice in the latter version, don’t you think? And it goes straight to the point without a bunch of qualifiers.

On the topic of simplicity, writer and speaker Guy Kawasaki suggests that organizations need a mantra: two or three words to describe what you do. Check out his point of view on this YouTube clip: Then try creating a mantra for your organization. I tried it. It was kind of freeing, actually, to trash extraneous words and focus on the critical few.

Lesson: Next time you need to write something about your nonprofit, ditch the plentiful and fancy words and search for the few powerful ones instead.



About Gayle Davey

I'm fascinated about the "business of conducting business": how organizations function, how they can be higher performing, how personalities drive culture... great stuff worth thinking about!
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3 Responses to The Problem with Overwriting

  1. sullycoach says:

    Love it. We share the “word nerd” appellation. I have always thought of words as “idea teleporters” a la Star Trek. Imagine not being able to convey our subjective experience of reality to each other. How cold and lonely our existence would be.

    Also, thanks for teleporting over the idea from Guy Kawasaki about corporate mission “mantras.” one of my clients in the loyalty business has this as theirs: “Enriching Relationships.” My personal mission mantra is still under construction, but goes something like this: “Inspiring Elevation.”

    Thanks for the great words!

    • Gayle Davey says:

      Thanks for your thoughts – so glad you enjoyed the read! Both mantras your shared hit the point of this post – powerful words that are spot on! Good for you!

  2. Pingback: Define yourself. In 1000 characters or less. | Moments of Clarity

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