How to Say Nothing in 500 Words

Posted by on July 20, 2008

I just found “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words (A Lesson on Writing)” <found on doshdosh.com, but page no longer exists, so link removed>, and was pleasantly surprised to find a subject that suits everything I am involved with now-a-days (in no particular order): Blogging, SEO, QA, Testing, and Business! No surprise really, because good writing skills are important for so many things in our daily life.

But the thing is, this article was written in the 1950‘s, and is still as true now as it was then.

As DoshDosh says, “Paul McHenry Roberts’s “How to Say Nothing in Five Hundred Words,” a brilliantly humorous introduction on writing college compositions. I discovered this essay today and read though easily in one sitting, possibly because it was so well-written and entertaining. It’s a perfect example of the writing techniques listed within.”

I agree. I also read it through in one sitting, and smiled the whole way through :-)

I was going to add my own examples to the summary below, but found that mostof them were just fluff that detracted from the real content (I already learnt something – see #4 below!). So, I just left in a couple. Quite a bit of what I’ve written below is actually copied verbatim from the author.

  1. Avoid the obvious content. You are writing an article or blog post about “Why Test Teams cause Developers to be Sloppy”, and let’s say you agree that they do. First, write down a list of the points that back up your opinion. Then, when you write your article make sure that you don’t use any of the material on this list. If these are the points that leap to your mind, they will leap to everyone else’s too. Find some reason or reasons of your own. “If they are keen and perceptive ones, that’s splendid. But even if they are trivial or foolish or indefensible, you are still ahead so long as they are not everybody else’s reasons too.”
  2. Take the less usual side. “One rather simple way … is to take the side of the argument that most of the citizens will want to avoid.”  Or, if you have a choice of subjects, choose the one that no-one else will touch. Of course, you have to stick with your convictions, and your arguments have to be convincing.
  3. Slip out of abstraction. “Look at the work of any professional writer and notice how constantly he is moving from the generality, the abstract statement, to the concrete example, the facts and figures, the illustrations.”  Paint a picture that your audience can relate to, rather than just discussing abstracts.
  4. Get rid of obvious padding. “Instead of stuffing your sentences with straw, you must try steadily to get rid of the padding, to make your sentences lean and tough… You dig up more real content”. When you haven’t got enough real content for what you want to write about, it’s all to easy to add phrases like “I believe”, “in my humble opinion”, and loads of other meaningless terms. It’s just like “keyword stuffing” in SEO - adding more worthless content, instead of more useful, information-rich content.
  5. Call a fool a fool. “If he was a fool, call him a fool. Hedging about with “in-my-opinion’s” and “it-seems-to-me’s” and “as-I-see-it’s” and “at-least-from-my-point-of-view’s” gains you nothing. Delete these phrases whenever they creep into your writing. Decide what you want to say and say it as vigorously as possible, without apology and in plain words”. A prime example of someone who does just that is James Bach. Whether I agree with him or not is another matter, but no-one can say he hedges his opinions.
  6. Beware of Pat Expressions. “Other things being equal, avoid phrases like “other things being equal.” Those sentences that come to you whole, or in two or three doughy lumps, are sure to be bad sentences. They are no creation of yours but pieces of common thought floating in the community soup… No writer avoids them altogether, but good writers avoid them more often than poor writers.”
  7. Colorful Words. “Some words are what we call “colorful.” By this we mean that they are calculated to produce a picture or induce an emotion. They are dressy instead of plain, specific instead of general, loud instead of soft. Thus, in place of “Her heart beat,” we may write, “her heart pounded, throbbed, fluttered, danced.” Instead of “He sat in his chair,” we may say, “he lounged, sprawled, coiled.” However, you have to know when to use these fancy words, and when not to.
    For example, if you are writing a system requirements document, you want to be as plain and specific as possible.
  8. Colored Words.. “When we hear a word, we hear with it an echo of all the situations in which we have heard it before. The word mother, for example, has, for most people, agreeable associations. When you hear mother you probably think of home, safety, love, food, and various other pleasant things. When you hear “mother-in-law” on the other hand, you probably don’t!”.
    Again, in software, beware of words with too many associations – you could end up developing something the customer really didn’t want.
  9. Colorless Words. Words that add nothing to the description, like “nice”, or “cool”, that have long ago lost any “oomph”, and are slowly dying away. Don’t use them.

<The full text of the essay used to be available at http://www3.baylor.edu/~Jesse_Airaudi/nothingwords.html – the webpage is no longer extant.>

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July 20th, 2008 by debizyx
Posted in Writing Skills
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