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    Writing Potholes

    Wednesday, August 05, 2009

    Learn from your own mistakes? Maybe, but writer and editor Roscoe Born offers another strategy - learn from the mistakes of others. In his book The Suspended Sentence, Born says, "By first learning what is wrong [in writing] and then how to avoid it, you are a better writer, just by the process of elimination." Born then presents poorly-formed sentences from newspapers to show journalists what words or constructions to avoid.

    This blog entry presents, in Born style, examples of sentences from business magazines that are full of dangerous potholes. Avoid them all in your own writing.

    Give Me Your Tired and Your Overused
    These sentences contain cliche's, overused words and phrases that have (yawn) long since lost any meaning. The string of cliches in the final example is truly memorable for its brazen unoriginality.

    "In the end, the business community may hold two key trump cards in its legal fight to stop the…sick leave mandate."
    "The event will serve to better educate future buy-sell professionals and create a pipeline for potential employers to access the best and brightest candidates."
    "…and many real estate development firms are sitting on the sidelines, absorbing losses for now and hoping to ride out the storm."

    Pardon the Endless Interruption
    In these sentences, the main subjects and verbs are interrupted by so many words that a reader may forget the subject before meeting the verb.

    "Engaged employees, defined as employees who are mentally and emotionally invested in their work and contributing to their employer's success, know what they do at work contributes to their company's success."
    "9to5 National Coalition of Working Women, an advocacy group that worked to get a referendum for the sick leave law on the ballot, is defending the law in court."

    How Many Ways Can I Say It?
    The first sentence piles on too many modifiers; the second one says exactly the same thing before and after the word program.

    "Regular, open, transparent two-way communication in a variety of forms reduces feelings of isolation and powerlessness."
    "There is no one-size-fits-all program that works for all people and all organizations."

    How Many Times Can I Use the Same Word?
    In these sentences, one word is repeated one or two too many times, to the point that it becomes a distraction.

    "For feedback to be feedback - that is, for it to have some effect - the people involved in the feedback must understand that what they should be talking about is action."
    "Looking ahead, HIS is looking to develop and purchase real estate, mostly industrial and multi-family properties."

    Rambling On and On and On
    In these sentences, the writers don't know when to stop packing in ideas. Each one results in a rambling, confusing mess.

    "Leadership is different from 'followership,' and though we must be both leaders and followers depending on where we are in our careers, we must always have a vision, never blame others, be prepared, and most importantly, engage in active listening with those we lead and inspire."
    "Teams of students were asked to examine the company's cash flow, debt capacity and marketability, and were asked to come up with specific recommendations on whether or not the investor should buy it (an equity purchase), an appropriate price range and several exit strategies."

    Your Turn: Rewrite each of the examples so they express clear, original ideas. Ask a colleague to do the same; then compare each other's work.

    - Dave Kemper