Three Simple Steps to Improve Your Writing

Technical books are longer than they ought to be. Most software books could be improved by shedding a tenth of their heft. It’s a product of market pressures, of course: Tech books need to get to market fast, which does not allow for the time-consuming labor of honing and refining a text until it is lean and tight. I have a few simple strategies, though—simple tips that provide a disproportionately beneficial return on a trivial time investment. You can use the following tips to improve your blog posts, books, and presentations.

Replace “basically” with nothing.

This word never adds value. It is usually a manifestation of the author’s or speaker’s unconscious concern that what he is explaining is too complex. If time allows, revise the material until your readers don’t need extra convincing that it is basic. At least get rid of the useless word.

You could have some fun writing a regular expression to correct all instances with a global search-and-replace. If you’re amused by the challenge, please feel free to post your regex in the comments. You’d be helping all of us.

Here are the replacements your regex would need to catch:

Find Result
Basically, it can start a sentence. It can start a sentence.
Basically people leave off the comma, too. People leave off the comma, too.
It can basically appear in the middle. It can appear in the middle.
It can, basically, be set off with commas. It can be set off with commas.
It can end a sentence, basically. It can end a sentence.
It might end without a comma basically. It might end without a comma.

Replace “essentially” with nothing.

As above.

Replace “is nothing more than” with “is.”

The “is nothing more than” construction falls in the category of noisy hedge words. It’s a large category. Folks add words to forestall arguments. Even though it sounds romantically brash—X is nothing but Y, #wristforehead—it actually weakens the association between the subject and its predicate nominative. Be clear; be bold. If you’re trying to define X by saying that it is Y, say that X is Y.

I wish the industry allowed more time for editing. I wish I were able to help more people express their ideas. Good editing is liberating, plucking the brambles and cruft off a passage until its central theme floats to the fore—getting the text out of the way of the writing.

I hope you find these tips helpful and easy to implement. Ruthlessly delete useless clutter like “basically,” “essentially,” and “nothing more than.” Let your ideas stand tall.

About Sharon Cichelli

I am a Principal Technical Lead at Headspring, developing enterprise-changing software and coaching teams to deliver value without death marches. I am a .NET developer, open-source contributor, user group organizer, technical blogger, pinball fan, and Arduino enthusiast.
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  • Casey

    I’d also include “actually” in the list of words to replace with nothing.

  • Steve

    What if X is basically Y? :)

    “Definitely” is another one, also people using the “very” or “so” with “unique” drives me bonkers.

  • Yeah, “definitely” is a personal pet peeve mostly because it’s so often misspelled. Not a fan of “just” either.

    Another variation that is hard to read: “what it is” or “all it is”, because it usually leads to phrases like “what it is is” and “all it is is”.

    Now that I really think about it, we could basically do away with adverbs altogether…essentially.

  • Fynnbob

    Actually, your second to last paragraph is something that irks me: repeating the same point in slightly different ways to try and better drive home a point. Don’t worry, I already got the point. You could have excavated a big chunk of text by ending that paragraph with “Good editing is liberating.” I definitely agree with that.

    Good article and I hope lots of people read it. I would also add that writers should challenge themselves to be as succinct as possible. Everyone would appreciate that.

  • phat

    Decorating writing with useless ornaments also consumes the space and time that should be invested in offering context and subtext.

    Many technical writers assume too much from their readers, ignoring an opportunity to offer the foundation or underlying question that triggered a commentary or article. Writers invite misunderstanding unless they establish context before content.

    The casual “write like you speak” confusion is amplified by the “write like you think” failure. Techies must learn to think more clearly and, if not, at least write like you do.