Become a Better Writer — Avoid These Three Bad Habits

In an effort to help my career mentoring clients, I did a little survey of my C Suite clients and friends.  One of the questions I asked was “What stops technically qualified people from getting promoted?”  I got a lot of great feedback, most of which I expected.  However, there was one comment that surprised me by the number of times it was mentioned — inability to write clearly and succinctly.

Good clear writing is an important success skill.  This article lays out three bad writing habits many people fall into.

Tweet 111 in my career mentor book Success Tweets echoes the advice in this article.  It says, “Become a clear, concise writer.  Make your writing easy to read and understand.  Use simple straightforward language.”

Here are four enemies of clear, concise writing.

  • Too many words.
  • Passive voice.
  • Polysyllabic (big) words.
  • Jargon and clichés.

Here’s how to avoid these problems.

Too Many Words

I write in a pretty straightforward, clear manner. However, when I reread my writing, I usually find that I need to cut, rather than add words. Here are some sentences that I’ve picked out of some of the business correspondence I’ve received lately. All of them have too many words. Below, you will find the wordy sentence, followed by my suggested rewrite.

Wordy Sentence: At this point in time, we should, or perhaps I should say we must, proceed to examine our policy of sales incentives.

Rewrite: We need to examine our sales incentive policy now.

Wordy Sentence: I was unaware of the fact that your device could be used for security purposes.

Rewrite: I didn’t know your device could be used for security.

Wordy Sentence: The reason I failed to reply is that I was not apprised of the fact until yesterday that somehow the report had been unavoidably delayed.

Rewrite: I didn’t reply because I didn’t know until yesterday that the report was delayed.

You can see that I was able to cut down the length of each sentence without changing the meaning. If you want to become a clear, concise writer, work hard at eliminating unnecessary words. Carefully read what you write, and ruthlessly cut any words that don’t add to your message. You should use the exact number of words you need to accurately and completely get your message across – no more, no less.

Passive Voice

The active voice is always better than the passive voice. It is more forceful and direct. Here are some examples that illustrate my point.

Passive Voice: Plans for the conference will be made by my assistant.

Active Voice: My assistant will plan the conference.

Passive Voice: An error has been discovered by our staff.

Active Voice: Our staff discovered an error.

Passive Voice: The mistake in billing was rectified by the supplier posthaste.

Active Voice: The supplier corrected the billing mistake quickly.

Polysyllabic Words

Sometimes, it’s tempting to show off your vocabulary. Unfortunately, when you’re showing off, you’re probably not doing a good job of communicating. When my niece graduated from college, I gave her a copy of my just published book, Straight Talk for Success. I told her that I was trying for an “avuncular hip” tone, and asked her for her feedback once she read the book.

She looked at me and said, “What does avuncular mean?” I said, “Uncle-like.” She said, “Why didn’t you just say so?” She had a great point. She’s no dummy, graduated magna cum laude and has gone on to some great career success early on. However, she didn’t know what the word “avuncular” meant. Whose problem was that? Mine. I should have used the most easy to understand word; in this case that was two words, “uncle-like.”

I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I used to enjoy Law and Order – especially when Jack McCoy was the Assistant DA. “Hubris” was one of Jack’s favorite words in his jury summations. I remember watching some shows where he used this word and wondered why he didn’t say “arrogance.” They mean the same, and more people are likely to know the word “arrogance” than know the word “hubris.”

Several years ago, I read Stephen King’s book, On Writing. He is a big proponent of small, easy to understand words. To illustrate his point about small words, he shared a passage from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – one of my all time favorite novels.

“Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold.”

That’s a 50-word sentence with 39 one-syllable words and 11 two-syllable words. If you’ve read the book, you know how well this writing explains the lives of itinerant workers during the great depression. The career advice here is simple. Read over what you write, strike the polysyllabic (I mean big) words, and you’ll communicate better.

Jargon and Cliches

Finally, eliminate jargon and clichés from your writing. Don’t assume that everyone who will read what you write is as up on jargon as you are.

You might not believe me when I say that I don’t watch a lot of TV, as I have another great example from a TV show. If you spend any time on the Internet – especially Twitter – you know what the expression “wtf?” means. Cathy, my wife, really likes the show, Modern Family. It won several Emmys over the years. I think it is pretty funny too.

In one of the episodes, the father was trying to show his teenage daughters that he was pretty cool and with it. He said something like, “I know about these Internet abbreviations…. omg – Oh My God, lol – laugh out loud, wtf – why the face?” Remember, some of your readers may be as clueless about things you take for granted as the father on Modern Family.

Cliches are another problem for clear writing. If “it goes without saying,” don’t say it in writing. When you say, “To be perfectly honest…” I wonder if you’re usually not honest in what you say. Read your writing carefully for clichés. Cut them.

The common sense career mentor point here is simple. Follow the career advice in Tweet 111 in Success Tweets. “Become a clear, concise writer. Make your writing easy to read and understand. Use simple, straightforward language.” Reading what you write is the key to following this career advice. When you read your writing, look for words that you can eliminate and for ways to use the active, rather than passive voice. If you put these two common sense pieces of career advice to work, your writing will improve greatly.

Your career mentor,


PS: You can join the thousands of success minded professionals who have downloaded a free coy of Success Tweets and its companion piece Success Tweets Explained by going to  When you do, I’ll begin sending you daily motivational quotes and give you a free basic membership in my career mentoring site.

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