In the 30-plus years I was a corporate mouthpiece and wordsmith, senior managers sidled up to ask if I had any tips for writing. Their memos and plans had all the verve of congealed mac and cheese. This was the crib sheet that I pulled from my desk drawer for them. The suggestions apply also to flash fiction.
1. Use short words and, when you edit your writing, cut, cut, cut! See what makes this piece stand out: “Our world’s well served by his last book, The Old Man and the Sea. He said words should be like small, bright stones, seen in the sand through a clear stream. You know it’s tough to find the ones that are lean, have strength, stand up, shout out and sing loud. At last, each best, true, sole verb or noun takes its place. On a good day, we might write just a page, two or three, then call them done.” Notice each word has just one syllable? It’s not that word choices are overwhelming, but that we move too fast to complete the assignment.
2. Decide what result you want to achieve, what message the reader should take away. Each word, each thought must support this end result. Kill the rhetoric that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with your message.
3. Substitute Anglo-Saxon words when you can. Use “strength” instead of “fortitude,” “start” instead of “commence.” Greek and Latin derivatives are soft and mushy. Why say “apprise” or “inform” when “tell” says the same thing in half the syllables?
4. Avoid clichés, as in this real-life example: “Opening night at the Cirque de Soleil was a strictly A-list affair, with a veritable Who’s Who gathered under the big top for a mind-boggling performance.” Neo-clichés also lurk in memos and meetings: think outside the box, paradigm shift, core competencies, strategic initiative, impact (usually as a verb). Tired words and phrases grow like nits into lice.
5. Don’t worry about the fine points of grammar. Sir Winston Churchill said about dangling participles, “They are an outrage up with which I shall not put.” The same is true about split infinitives. Capt. Kirk always wanted “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Who’s going to argue with the Captain? Grammatical rigor mortis can make you sound stuffy.
6. As the Microsoft grammar checker on your toolbar demands, choose the active voice over the passive. How easy it is to say, “The policy was reviewed before implementation,” instead of “The manager reviewed the policy before….” It’s amazing to think how much work gets done by itself!
7. Avoid adjectives. They’re a lazy way to bring an idea to life. Instead of writing about a “lonely office after everyone has gone home,” go for the image with something like, “The loudest noise was the cleaning woman’s vacuum cleaner at the far end of the hallway.”
8. Prosaic writing dulls the mind. Rewrite sentences, such as “The performance was so exciting that the audience was stunned when it was over,” with imagery. Substitute “There was a minute of stunned silence before the applause broke out.” Undistinguished writing is the stuff of TV news reporters.
9. Lazy verbiage that searches for the dramatic will always hijack your story. Here’s an example that came from one of Mitt Romney’s highly paid Bain & Co. consultants: “When you join the Corporation, you also become a member of a very special and very unique team. It’s a worldwide team of over 50,000 men and women whose diverse mix of experience, energy and expertise makes us a true force to be reckoned with in the global marketplace. (And more blah blah blah.) Wow! Mind-numbingly vapid!
10. Computer spell checking won’t do your work for you. Spelling must be absolutely correct. If a person can’t spell the difference between burro and burrow, it’s fair to say he doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.