‘Fewer words, more meaning’ is my wrinkly writing motto. It’s the same plain English plug, my legions of biz comms students called ‘Mother Cameron’s mantra.’ It headlined every whiteboard and peppered every assignment. By the end of their courses, most people ‘got’ it. They’d mastered the art of making every word work hard at sending a clear, credible message to a specific reader.

‘Fewer words, more meaning’ prompted a savvy agency boss to offer me my first big copy job. It launched my freelance life and landed me a lovely, lucrative, long term client.

Plain English works.

But, after forty years and five career changes, I’m still banging on about it.

Plain English is neither new nor rocket science. But it still needs champions.

If you’ve YET to master the art of ‘fewer words, more meaning,’ these guidelines give you the full Monty.

If you stop committing these three copy crimes NOW, you’ll make this old dame’s day.

Shrink the padding

Pick a page of copy. Cut every adjective. Sub oomphier verbs for weak ones that rely on a punchy adverb. Good. Now you’ve got up to three adjectives to play with. Use them well.

Get rid of nouns masquerading as verbs. If a noun is ‘making an appearance’ in place of a verb, make the right verb ‘turn up’.

Lose the passive voice

Play hard and fast with the passive if your brief is to:

  • deflect responsibility for a dodgy deal or a botched job where ‘mistakes were made
  • intimidate hapless humans trying their best to fill in official forms

Otherwise, steer well clear. Make people responsible for their actions. Tell form filling humans precisely what they need to do and how to do it.

Stop paragraphs pretending to be sentences

Ditching padding and the passive voice takes care of a chunk of this problem. You can also ignore the old school prohibition on starting sentences with conjunctions like ‘and or ‘but’. List and dot point for economy, and elegant white space.

Get Hemingway’s help

My copy lives or dies by the Hemingway app. It grades your work for readability and helps keep you honest. It pinpoints places where you’ve been too smart by half and prompts you to get over yourself.

Anything under 9 gets a ‘good.’ Hemingway’s work was estimated at between 4 and 6. This rant got a 5.

Which style and grammar glitches give you the pip?

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