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3 ways to eliminate flab from your writing and become a stronger communicator

No, this isn’t an article on dieting. Today, we’re talking about a different kind of flab that professionals should shed—the kind you find in poor writing.

Flab is the unnecessary words, the words that don’t mean what they’re supposed to mean, and the clichés that everyone’s tired of hearing. Take flab out of your letters, memos, and reports. Flab will never improve a sentence; in fact, it often makes it worse.

First are the redundancies. The scientific name for redundancies is pleonasms. These are the two-word terms where one of the words needs to be dropped. What’s wrong with a Catholic nun? Nothing grammatically, but she’s like a Jewish rabbi. Is there one of any other faith?

The same with 12 noon, armed gunmen, advance reservations, free gifts, unexpected surprises, and a pair of twins.

Next are the intensifiers. These are supposed to do exactly what the name implies—intensify other words, and sometimes they do so, as in an extremely tall man, a rather serious affair, and a severely damaged package.

But when they aren’t necessary for the meaning of the word they’re intensifying, they are just flab.

The worst are really and very. There is no difference between a good dinner, a really good dinner, and a very good dinner. Both really and very can always be taken out of a sentence without changing the meaning. And when they are taken out, the sentence is invariably really very stronger.

Then come the clichés, which are just overused expressions. Everyone has heard burn the midnight oil, nose to the grindstone, think outside the box, and at the end of the day. Having to hear them again is bad enough, but having to read them is worse.

Instead of I’ll have my nose to the grindstone tonight burning the midnight oil, just say I plan to work hard tonight. Or instead of at the end of the day, only Mr. Jarndyce’s attorneys got paid, say when the case ended, only the attorneys got paid.

Whenever an expression sounds too familiar, leave it out and say what needs to be said in plain English. Otherwise, it’s just flab.

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