How to Break Lazy Writing Habits

I never intended to become the office’s punctuation police, but it’s happened anyways. And not all punctuation, just a single piece: the exclamation point.

It started with internal office emails. I casually pointed out that we, as a company, might be using too many exclamation points. This, of course, caused more emails with even more exclamation points, because we are a funny bunch that loves nothing more than to poke the bear.

It also prompted a question from someone. I’m paraphrasing, but it boiled down to, how do we convey enthusiasm without an exclamation point? My answer — and this isn’t meant to sound rude — was to choose better words. This is not a knock on anyone in particular. Too many people all over are abusing the exclamation point.

I’ll admit that even I’ve been known to do it from time to time. The problem is that we are asking the exclamation point to do a job that it was never intended to do. True exclamatory sentences are rare, or at least they should be. That means the exclamation point should also be rarely used.

Our overuse — and I mean the collective our, not Idea Grove specifically — is a sign of a bigger problem: lazy writing. We’ve gotten casual with language, and that’s not good. Language is a powerful thing. Used well, it has the ability to entertain, to motivate, to influence.

Here are three things to ask yourself the next time you find yourself behind a keyboard writing a memo, drafting an email or crafting a white paper.

Am I using the right word?

What you need to consider here is not whether you used a one-syllable word when a three syllable one would convey the same message but make you sound smarter. The answer to that question is almost never yes.

The point here is to think about the specific meanings of words. There are a lot of words that mean roughly the same thing. They can be used interchangeably to convey high-level messages without causing any confusion.

Consider ransomed versus rescued. Both roughly mean pulling someone from a situation that they couldn’t escape on their own. Ransomed, though, has a deeper meaning. It’s more than just rescuing. It’s paying a price for the person being recused that they couldn’t pay themselves. Using rescued gets the point across. Using ransomed adds power to the sentence by emphasizing a higher level of detail and meaning.

Take a moment when re-reading something you’ve written — yes, you should always re-read the things you write — and make sure that you’ve used the right words, the ones that convey exactly what you want them to, and you aren’t relying on punctuation to carry a load it was never meant to carry.

Am I finding the rhythm?

Language is like music. It’s meant to have a rhythm to it. But this rhythm isn’t always obvious. You won’t always notice when it’s there, but you will definitely notice when it’s not. Anything written without considering the rhythm of the words is going to feel unsatisfying. It’s going to feel dry. It’s probably going to feel a little boring, like a recitation of facts.

How do you avoid this? By varying your sentence structure. Use sentences that are long, lyrical and more complex. Follow those with punchy sentences. Then read it all out loud. That’s the best way to identify the rhythm. Do this long enough and the rhythm will begin showing itself to you as you write.

Am I using all of my tools?

Have you ever built a table? If not, you still probably could, right? It’s just three or four legs with a top. Nothing difficult. But ask someone with experience in woodworking to build you a table and you’ll get so much more than legs and a top. You’ll get finished edges. You’ll get decorative touches. You’ll get the things that come to mind for all of us when we think about a table, because no one thinks about just legs and a top.

The same is true for writing. Good writers have tools in their toolboxes that you probably never realized they were using. You have at your disposal more than just 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks. While you can build a functional sentence or paragraph using only those, paying attention to higher-level details allows you to put finishing touches on the things you write.

Those fine touches can come from techniques like alliteration, parallel structure and the Rule of Three.

Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound. While it can be annoying if done for too long or at the wrong moment, it is an effective tool when used in something like a list. For example, saying that your product is affordable, accurate and automated is a great way to highlight things for a reader and helps them commit each point to memory.

Parallel structure is typically used in a sentence that includes a series. For example: He took her to a dance, to the movies, and to dinner. That’s parallel structure: to, to, to. It’s not just for sentences, though. In fact, parallel structure has been used a couple of times in this blog, most obviously in the subheads: “Am I …” “Am I …” “Am I …”

Finally, there’s a reason you often see things in threes. It’s because of The Rule of Three, and it’s one of the oldest writing tools there is. You’ll see it in everything from sales copy to children’s books. The Three Little Pigs, anyone? Again, you can see it in the subheads on this post.

These are only three tools writers can use for adding detail to your writing, but there are dozens more. Learn them. Use them. Along with choosing the right words and finding the right rhythm, they will elevate your writing and help break those lazy habits.

Originally published at on January 29, 2016.

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