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Published June 20th 2019

Dreyer’s English: Could Banning Certain Words Improve My Copy?

Many of us write every day. Can a simple challenge from Dreyer's English improve the way we communicate?

Grammar, style, and clarity.

When we write, these three concerns sit at the forefront of our minds. Is that the correct way to use a semicolon? Is that paragraph too boring? Will people understand this tweet?

If you go too far in one direction, your writing suffers.

For example, a pedantic dedication to grammatical rules can get in the way of clarity and style. This is particularly the case when the rule is not even a real rule, such as not ending a sentence with a preposition, or using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. No matter what anyone tells you, both are completely fine. Ignoring ‘rules’ like these gives you far more choice with your writing.

Style is another place we can get stuck in a rut. All writers have their own; flowery or to-the-point, huge paragraph-long sentences or a more staccato feel. Lengthy approaches can be great until walls of text become difficult to parse or elaborate descriptions get in the way of the story.

Meanwhile clarity, which you’d think would always be a plus, can cause problems. You might explain in such a simple and clear way that the piece reads like a child’s book, in turn becoming incredibly boring and slow that you can barely follow it without falling asleep. You cannot communicate with a person you have bored to death.

In other words, there’s a lot to think about. And these days, we’re all writers. Writing isn’t only blog posts or books, it’s tweets, emails, and Slack messages. And each has their own special requirements for grammar, style, and clarity.

Which meant when a book came along that I thought could help me with all this, I paid attention (and money).

Dreyer’s English

A few months back I came across Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. It caught my eye for two reasons. One, its author, Benjamin Dreyer, is the Random House copy chief, and two, it’s a book focused on doing writing gooder rather than being a glorified grammatical rulebook.

I ordered the UK English version (although we write in US English here, maybe I’ll soon be expensing for that version as well), and when it arrived (bought from local bookshop City Books) I was greeted with a challenge that would, Dreyer claimed, instantly improve my writing.

On the face of it it’s simple, but when you get down to it, difficulties soon arise. They’re all extremely common words and phrases and you’d be surprised how often they appear in your writing. Even when you’re trying to exclude them, they still sneak in.

To give it a go, I decided to exclude that entire list from Brandwatch’s tweets for a week.

Would it be difficult? Would it improve my copy? Would I carry on with it after a week?

With the author’s words of encouragement, I got to work.

The challenge

With a sticky note reminder on my monitor, and a public commitment to the challenge, I started writing a tweet and I felt the restriction almost immediately.

It was a negative feeling at first. While Dreyer says in the book you can write normally and then remove the words after, I found myself tripping over each ‘very’ and ‘so’ that naturally came to me. I felt like I was stalling and getting muddled to the point of losing patience.

This didn’t last long. As I had to re-think my sentences, or structure them entirely differently to avoid the cursed words, the frustration started to slip away. The tweets were better. Some a little better, others a lot better.

You quickly see that the words from the list are often too vague, (‘very’, ‘pretty’, and ‘really’ are weak intensifiers you can near always replace with better ones), or simply unnecessary.

I also realized that I relied on these words to carry me through the copy without giving much thought or effort (something all too attractive when you’re writing tweets all day). I had become reliant on a structure and now I had to re-think it.

Now when I came to write a tweet it wasn’t about chucking in a selling point or comment and then getting it out. Instead I had a think about what it was I was trying to say before putting any words down.

Then I noticed something else. That same approach was sneaking into my head when writing Slack messages and emails. I wasn’t strict with removing the words (maybe that’s my next challenge), but I did find myself taking a pause before blurting out a load of info in a DM.

With emails and platforms like Slack we’re used to sending off messages at the drop of a hat because it feels like we’re saving time. But if we send off 100 badly written messages that need clarifying, we’re wasting a lot of time instead.

At the end of the week I found that not only did exorcising these words make for better copy, it made for a better writing mindset too.

I’ll be sticking to the challenge permanently.

What about the rest of the book?

My main takeaway from the rest of the book is to tell you all to buy it. Going back to talking about grammar, style, and clarity, Dreyer’s English does an incredible job of helping you succeed in all three.

It knocks back old rules that serve no purpose, it offers advice on how to keep your writing interesting and lively, and it gives insightful pointers on communicating effectively. Not to mention it’s an excellent resource for common mistakes and interesting writing anecdotes.

Anyone who sends an email or writes a Facebook post is technically a writer, which means this is a book for nearly everyone nowadays. For me, it means taking pause before writing to focus on the desired result. It’s also given me ammo to make grammar pedants pipe down.

I now keep a copy for reference on my desk at all times and I’m sure I’ll be flipping through it regularly.

Go and read the book. The inboxes of the world will be far better places if you do.

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