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200px-Weasel_words.svgRecently I’ve read two fantastic pieces about, funnily enough, writing better.

The first is Joanna Wiebe‘s series of ebooks on web copywriting. I’m on the second of the four books now, which is all about formatting copy for readability.

The other piece I read today was something I saw in Copyblogger‘s weekly mail out. It’s an internal document from Ogilvy and Mathers, one of the top advertising firms during the 70s and 80s, founded by copywriting legend David Ogilvy. The document is a 20 point style guide which is pure gold for improving your writing.

So then today this job falls in my lap. A business needed help with writing a marketing brochure. Like it was fate.

To give you an idea of how bad a shape they were in, here’s an excerpt from the original (their underlining):

We’ll work with you to design a unique end to end solution specifically tailored around your needs and goals.  The result will maximise your ability to pay off your home mortgage as quickly as possible, while simultaneously investing in property to grow your wealth.

What. On. Earth.

This was the worst of it, but there was quite a bit of jargon like this throughout.

Like I said, it’s funny, because this was exactly what Joanna’s books and the Oglivy and Mathers document were all about. Avoiding cliches and weasel words, and getting your message across in plain English.

The problem is that somebody reading the above paragraph just won’t absorb it. It’s too hard. Especially in a brochure where you’re trying to sell them something.

So we reworked that paragraph to say:

We’ll work with you to figure out what kind of property will suit your needs and goals. Then we’ll show you ways to pay off your mortgage in as short a time as possible. We’ll even manage the property for you so you can focus on what’s important.

It’s still a little general for my liking and would ideally have some more concrete facts. But we’ve only got so much space and time to work with.

The point is that we all have a tendency to apply a filter to the truth, to try to dress it up as something more, when there’s really no need.

People want clear, direct, messages, which they can understand quickly. When we use big words and jargony phrases, it usually means we don’t have a clear idea of what we’re actually trying to say, and often we’d be better off cutting the sentence or paragraph altogether.

We need to make more of an effort to get to the heart of what we’re trying to do, then say it to our audience in clear, simple terms, without unnecessary words or phrases to pad it out. If it needs those things then maybe it’s not worth saying in the first place.

Only once we cut through the jargon and the weasel words can we really start to communicate, and that’s when we really start to connect with other people.