Last week’s writing tips essay was one of the most frequently read since I started sending them out more than six years ago. Over and over people told me that the quick, practical tips I had used as examples were what they liked the best, so this week I thought I’d give you a list of more quick-and-easy tips that can supercharge your writing:
Enhance comparisons without adding words. When we compare things, we sometimes want to draw attention to a single shared quality. Other times we want to say that two things are overwhelmingly alike. This is the difference between a simile and a metaphor.
A simile is the use of like or as, typically to stress a single quality: Profit to our business is like gasoline to an engine: we’re going nowhere without it.
Contrast this with a metaphor, which suggests that two things are overwhelmingly alike: This fiscal quarter is an Olympic sprint – we get one chance and we can’t miss a step.
A simile lets us focus on one shared quality without having to say, “Let’s now focus on one shared quality.” A metaphor tells the audience, without having to say it, that two things share many important characteristics.
To emphasize an idea in a unique way, repeat part of the phrase instead of all of it. Repeating a phrase tells an audience that the speaker thinks an idea is important. But repeating only part of a phrase allows you to emphasize an idea through the rhythm of the words, not just their meaning. I might say, The decision is wrong! This decision is wrong! This decision is wrong! It’s a dramatic way to make a point. But by repeating only part of the phrase, I add what I’ll call “musicality” to it, lending even greater drama: You know it’s wrong. I know it’s wrong. Everyone within the sound of my voice knows it’s wrong.
Repeating the words at the end of a phrase is called epistrophe. We can do it for the words at the beginning as well: America must be strong. America must be vigilant. And America must be compassionate. That’s called anaphora.
If you have to disappoint the reader or listener, soften the blow with structure. Sometimes we need to say that something is bad, but we don’t want to foreclose on the listener’s further interest by coming right out and saying the bad thing. For instance, we could tell someone a meal was merely passable, but we might wish to be a little kinder in our assessment of the restaurant. In those cases, we might open with, “Dinner wasn’t terrible.” If a client needs our work to be significantly improved, she might tell us, “This version isn’t a complete wreck,” using a little understatement-as-humor to start a difficult conversation instead of telling us “this barely works.” If what we ask for is much greater than what we receive, we might say, “The difference in pay is not minor,” again letting us avoid the emotional risk of directness.
This device is called a litotes, and it’s a particular kind of understatement to soften the blow of bad news. The formula is this: We think of the quality we wish to minimize, then negate its opposite:
• Marginally attractive becomes Not ugly
• Of little value becomes Not entirely useless
• Of only middling interest becomes Not a complete waste of time