Monday, January 25, 2010

weekly writing coach: overstatements

I just bought a set of universal earphones for my new cellphone, because the old universal earphones didn't fit the new phone (same manufacturer)...and found they come with a universal adapter to fit all the phones the standard set doesn't fit, er, universally.

Get it? That's a classic overstatement. Now, get over it--by making sure you either self-edit overstatements before you submit your work, or stop yourself from inserting them into your writing in the first place.  As a reader (or earphone buyer), I'm more likely to find you credible if overstatements don't pepper your work. Here are 5 ways to steer clear of them:
  • Monitor those adjectives and adverbs:  Overstatements often ride the coattails of adjectives and adverbs.  If the conference is especially exciting, the speakers notable and widely recognized and even the auditorium seats are the most comfortable you can imagine, I'll be looking for unicorns in the lobby of your next meeting.
  • Get a sense of what you're reaching for:  With products, research finding and even government policies, there's a yen to make everything a breakthrough, a major advance or a significant step.  If you're feeling some pressure--internal or external--to make something sound better, stop and figure out why, and whether that makes sense.
  • Find another word:  Are all your programs major? All your research extensive? All your senior officials probing and sought-after?  See if some variety--either in new terms or a rewritten sentence structure--can help you dig out of the overstatement ditch you're about to fall into.  A good rule of thumb: Don't reuse accolades.  Once you've described one program as "ground-breaking," that's it.
  • Temper, temper:  Could, may and might are useful tools to keep you from the verb forms that lead to self-destructive overstatement.  Referring to a new study that could prove useful hedges your bets better than one that claims to have completely solved the problem. It's one of the true good uses for a passive verb form.
  • Says who?  Ask yourself that question after every claim in your sentence. What would your staunchest critics say about your overstatement?  A neutral source?  If you can't prove it, don't use it.  And if someone can disprove it, time for a rewrite. 

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