Avoiding Words with Rounded Corners (or how to write with a sharpened pencil)

By Sue Stoney, The Message Crafter

Are you as tired of tired words as I am? Do you have your favorite pet peeves when it comes to the overworked entries in our lexicon? Here is my short list of “overused favorites”:

  • Amazing
  • Awesome
  • Nice
  • “Friend” or “Google” or…used as a verb
  • “Perfect storm” or “shovel-ready” or “at the end of the day” or “skill set” or…[insert overused business expression here]
  • Foodie (As Graydeon DeCamp, Elk Rapids, Michigan, put it on LSSU’s website: “I crave good sleep, too, but that does not make me a sleepie. News flash: We ALL like food.”)
  • Insert your favorite word / phrase choice pet peeve here____________________________

rounded-cornersIt seems that, today, everyone and everything is “amazing” and / or “awesome”. Webster’s tells us that “to amaze” in its original usage meant to confuse, stun or astonish.  And the Middle English use of amazing to mean “inspiring awe” was gradually replaced, starting in the 1960s, with its use as “impressive, very good”. The dictionary even notes this use of “awesome” as placing it in a weakened colloquial state.

Hence, the title of this article: We have so overworked certain words and expressions that their corners have been rounded – have lost their edge, figuratively speaking.

Let’s Get Re-Acquainted with the Thesaurus

I am a fan of the original Roget’s Thesaurus, the one that grouped words by meaning in families that shows the word in all of its parts of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) in relationship to all its synonyms, antonyms, near-synonyms and near-antonyms.

Why? Because context matters. And so does the baggage that clings to any word throughout its history – the denotations (dictionary meaning) and connotations (associations, negative and positive).

I have three favorite online thesauri / dictionaries (no, I mean, really – “favorites” bookmarked in my browser)…

…and two favorite offline sources:

  • The Concise Roget’s International Thesaurus
  • The American Heritage Dictionary (has extensive root word history for entries)

I also give a tip of my editorial cap to the Oxford English Dictionary, which embarked on an ambitious project back in 1857 to record the “King’s English” as spoken and written in all of its various usages throughout the world.

So, What’s Wrong with “Nice”?

Exactly. No, I mean just that – “exactly”. There is nothing “exact” about the word “nice” – anymore. It has two counts against it as a word choice. It’s an adjective, not a noun, and it doesn’t mean anything anymore.

The Message Crafter’s first rule of thumb for writing:

Make your word choices as “pin-pointy” as you can make them.

And choose your sentence-building blocks wisely.

Choose nouns and verbs first – as sharp as you can make them. They are the cornerstones of the sentence.

Then, add some frosting on those noun and verb cakes – sparingly. If your nouns and verbs are as specific to the context as you can make them, why add frosting? Sometimes, it really is “Let them eat cake!” Other times, the cake needs the add-ons (adjectives and adverbs) to intrigue and inspire us.

Let’s look at that sentence often used by key-boardists (used to be “typists”): “The quick, brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

At the “bare-bones” level, that sentence would read: The fox jumped over the dog.

The noun “fox” has specificity to it. And we understand why “dog” was chosen (because, coupled with the other words in the sentence, it helps the key-boardist learn the positions of letters on the QWERTY keyboard as he or she learns to type). But “dog”, in the context of “sharp word choices”, is, well, not so sharp.

What if we substituted “mutt” or “hound dog” for just plain old “dog” there? Would it lend a level of specificity to “dog” similar to that of “fox”?  Sure! Especially if you added the adjectives “quick” and “brown” (not “red”) to “fox” – and “lazy” to “hound dog” or “mutt”.

So, back to that word “nice”. What DOES it mean – exactly? Nothing. “She’s a nice girl.” Is she friendly, kind, patient, understanding…not willing to “put out” as they say in the parlance? Use the sharpest noun-verb word choices – and after that, frosting in the way of adjectives and adverbs – SPARINGLY.

Tag Lines and How They Force Us to Be Pithy and Precise (and good marketers / writers)

An apocryphal story about Mark Twain says that he was supposed to have apologized to someone for writing a long letter because he didn’t have time to write a short one. That story somehow “sits right with me”. Why? Because the best writing is both pithy and precise.

If you are writing to sell your products and / or services, the best framework within which to get good at “pithy and precise” is the tag line.

The tag line forces us to tell our brand (company) story in as few words as possible. Why am I (is my brand) relevant? How does my tag line help to differentiate me from my competitors?

Let’s look at some favorites from the all-time “favorites” list of best company tag lines:

  1. [_________________], where the pets go
  2. [_________________] kills bugs dead
  3. Just do it!
  4. Got [______________]?
  5. Where’s the [_______________]?
  6. Great taste, less filling
  7. Melts in your mouth, not in your hand
  8. You’re in good hands with [__________________]
  9. Who ya gonna call?
  10. Snap. Crackle. Pop.

So, in case you didn’t get it, here is the “answer key” to the above set of 10 “best tag lines ever” (maybe):

  1. Petco
  2. Raid
  3. Nike
  4. The milk industry
  5. Wendy’s
  6. Miller Lite
  7. M&M’s
  8. Allstate
  9. Ghostbusters
  10. Rice Krispies

Writing a tag line that describes you and / or your business is a great way to practice pithiness. A well crafted tag line is easily remembered, references essential benefits, differentiates the individual (or brand), imparts positive feelings, and is unusable by a competitor.

Use the “pithy and precise” filter the next time you are reviewing your own writing. Ask yourself three questions:

“Is this piece as short as I can make it and still get the point across?”

“Where can I cut out and / or replace hackneyed words and expressions?”

“Have I overstuffed my sentences with additives (adjectives and adverbs)?”

Doing a pass-through of your material asking these three questions will help you keep your writing short and to the point and oh, so sweet!