“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’ — your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain
Today, the LOA! Team offers a back-to-basics lesson in business writing. Specifically, a lesson on modifiers: what they are, and when and if you should employ them. A modifier is a word that comes before the most important word of the sentence and adds information about that most important word. You need not concern yourself with whether the modifier is an adverb, adjective, noun, or something else. For more powerful, punchy, and briefer business writing, recognize surplus words so you can cut them or, better still, not write them in the first place. Most modifiers are surplus words. They take up space, make the modified word less powerful, and render your writing clichéd and hyperbolic.
This from a recent business memo we read:
“After a strong presentation and robust dialogue, the Board enthusiastically approved the transaction.”
Like playing “Where’s Waldo,” can you find the modifiers? Here they are: “strong,” “robust,” “enthusiastically.” Let’s try the sentence again, this time without the modifiers:
“After a presentation and dialogue, the Board approved the transaction.”
Much better. Not only briefer, but less flowery and with an understated business tone. And so . . .
Use modifiers sparingly. Eliminate modifiers such as:
• completely agree . . . agree
• firmly believe . . . believe
• fully protected . . . protected
• overly dramatic . . . dramatic
• safely assume . . . assume
• very compelling . . . compelling
Mark Twain explains why: “God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention . . . You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.” Losing the modifier results in understatement — the right tone for business writing — and brings a calmness and appearance of considered thought to your writing. Modifiers that you allow to remain are more powerful due to their scarcity. See if the word being modified works fine on its own, without the modifier. It almost always will. Very, clearly, really, simply, and totally are obvious cuts.
One modifier we do find effective when disagreeing or offering an alternate view is “respectfully.” If the words and tone that follow are indeed respectful, “respectfully submit” sets a deferential tone. As does “respectfully contend” or “respectfully request.” In contrast, the phrase “with all due respect” is inevitably followed by statements that are not respectful; its use signals an attack and hence should not be used. Much like “bless his (or her) heart” in the American south.
Don’t use conflicting modifiers. Unless you’re trying to be humorous by using words that don’t go together, don’t use modifiers such as:
• fairly toxic
• pretty shocking
• rather catastrophic
• slightly hysterical
• somewhat terrified
• mostly dead
Substitute a stronger word instead of a modifier. Such as:
• extremely busy . . . swamped
• much confusion . . . chaos
• quite puzzling . . . baffling
• very angry . . . enraged
• very sad . . . morose
• very tired . . . exhausted
This lesson applies to proposals, PowerPoint slides, emails, you name it. To write like a boss, and for more powerful business writing, lose the modifier!