This hilarious YouTube video shows what I mean.
To fight the enemy, we have to see it
My favorite writing teacher used parody to help us recognize and remove bloat. Here’s a small example.
The following statement is sort of Apple style–minimal and direct. Your assignment is to rewrite it, packing in as many words and details as possible.
Don’t bring your cat to work, because some of your colleagues could be allergic.
Here’s one possible rewrite:
All staff, both exempt and non-exempt, should endeavor to observe a complete ban on feline companion animals in the workplace at all times, due to the fact that much of the human population experiences an allergic histamine reaction to cat glycoprotein. Your observation of this ban is appreciated.
By examining how we bloated the statement, we can begin to recognize bloat in our own materials. So let’s look at the damage we did.
- Instead of speaking directly to the reader (“don’t”), we spoke in the abstract (“all staff…should endeavor”).
- We redundantly defined “all” (“both exempt and non-exempt”).
- We over-elaborated “cat” (“feline companion animals”).
- We chose words with lots of syllables (“endeavor,” “feline,” etc.).
- We unnecessarily pointed out that a “complete ban” is in effect “at all times.”
- We replaced one word (“because”) with five (“due to the fact that”).
- We got overly scientific. Probably a stakeholder said, “We have to say what they’re allergic to!”
- We added an unnecessary and fake-sounding thanks that has no real subject (“is appreciated” by whom?). Probably a stakeholder said, “We can’t just issue an edict. It sounds too harsh.”
For another example, see how I sucked all the life out of a fun commercial by turning it into elearning.
Of course, bloated prose is just a tiny symptom of a bigger problem: too much information. Action mapping can help you identify when information is useful and how it should be provided. And here’s how to use a simple feature in Word to cut the bloat out of your own writing.