Cut the waffle

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One of the greatest threats to good writing is ‘waffle’.

The word ‘waffle’ may conjure up cosy images of hot waffles for breakfast with whipped cream and maple syrup, but in the writing world, waffle is much more dangerous.

Waffle is unnecessary text that suffocates your message.

Here’s an example:

While we recognise that all children develop at their own pace, it is generally recommended that babies, toddlers and small children are not left unsupervised with items that contain small parts, as this may cause choking. With this in mind, we advise that you avoid giving this product to any children under the age of three, to prevent this unlikely but serious outcome.

The writer has a very serious message to give, but he has cloaked it in so much unnecessary padding that it has completely lost its impact.

Let’s strip all that waffle away:

Do not give this product to children under the age of three. It contains small parts that may cause choking.

The result is a direct instruction that’s easy to follow and a clear concise explanation for it.

Diagnosing waffle

If you’re a serial waffler, don’t despair. It’s a common problem and it’s easily fixed. When you’ve identified the reason for the waffle, you can start cutting it out of your writing.

Here are three reasons for waffling and how to tackle them:

  1. You’re not exactly sure what you’re trying to say

If you’re not sure what you’re trying to say, take some time to work out what the key points of your message are. That’s the hard part. Once you know what you’re trying to say, you can just go ahead and say it.

  1. You’re worried about making your point directly

If you’re worried about making your point directly, ask yourself why that is. Perhaps you don’t want to sound ‘bossy’. Remember that your reader will expect you to give them instructions (take a look at our previous post on this topic: Like a boss).

Perhaps you will need to draw attention to something that’s awkward or unpleasant. It can be difficult to find the right words for a sensitive topic, but try to avoid lots of unnecessary skirting around the issue. Choose your words carefully, by all means, but make sure the essential information is easy to find and understand.

  1. You’re trying to make your writing sound impressive

If you’re trying to make your writing sound more impressive, you might need to consider whether this is a good strategy. Text that’s full of waffle just isn’t effective. Readers will give up on it, no matter how impressed they may be by the writer’s vocabulary.

This is a particularly bad tactic if you’re writing public information. Long, wordy paragraphs can intimidate the very people you’re trying to engage and educate. Shorter sentences and simpler words are usually the way to go.

 

Ready to start tackling the waffle? We’ll be back on Thursday for some waffle-busting fun in the Write for Real People Workshop.

Like a boss

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When you’re writing instructions, don’t be afraid of being bossy. The most effective instructions often use direct language and imperative verbs (verbs which give a command).

For example:

Do not smoke in the building.

Wash your hands after feeding the animals.

These instructions are clear and helpful. The language is direct, the tone is authoritative and the message is easy to follow.

You might be worried about sounding demanding or rude if you used commands like these in your writing. Perhaps you’d be more likely to write something like this:

Please try to avoid smoking in the building.

We recommend that you wash your hands after feeding the animals.

The tone here is certainly softer, but the message just isn’t as powerful.

Here’s why you should use the imperative:

1.) You’re the boss

If you (or your organisation) are giving instructions, take charge with your words. Your reader needs to hear what you’ve got to say and follow the directions you give them. They won’t be surprised when you tell them what to do (or what not to do).

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can never say ‘please’. Use it sparingly though. You don’t want to sound as though you’re pleading with your reader.

For example, these instructions could do with being much more direct:

Please try to be considerate of other passengers on the bus wherever possible. We ask that you avoid putting your bags on the seats. If you could take all litter home with you, this would be greatly appreciated. We would like to advise you that the blue seats by the door are reserved for disabled people and the elderly. 

In an effort to be polite, the writer has made these instructions very long-winded and rather feeble. They don’t sound like authoritative commands, just the vain wishes of a rather desperate bus driver.

Let’s see if we can make some improvements:

Please be considerate of other passengers on the bus. Do not put your bags on the seats. Take all litter home with you. The blue seats by the door are reserved for disabled people and the elderly. 

2.) Direct instructions are safer instructions

Using direct commands usually makes your writing clearer. If you are giving your reader directions for their safety or wellbeing, don’t make them sound like mere suggestions. You don’t want your reader to treat them as optional.

For example:

If there is a fire, we recommend that you leave the building as soon as possible. You are advised to use the nearest fire exit. Please avoid taking any belongings with you.

Here, the writer sounds as though they’re afraid of sounding too bossy. In reality, the reader needs to be told with authority that they MUST leave the building in the event of a fire. In an attempt to sound polite, the writer has diluted the meaning and implied that leaving the building is only a ‘recommendation’. In this case, a more direct command is a safer choice:

If there is a fire, leave the building immediately. Use the nearest fire exit. Do not take anything with you.

 

Follow these simple tips and you’ll be giving instructions like a boss in no time.

Come back on Thursday to see this tip in action.