- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
This sounds easy, but in practice is incredibly difficult. Phrases such as toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, an axe to grind, Achilles’ heel, swan song, and hotbed come to mind quickly and feel comforting and melodic.
For this exact reason they must be avoided. Common phrases have become so comfortable that they create no emotional response. Take the time to invent fresh, powerful images.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Long words don’t make you sound intelligent unless used skillfully. In the wrong situation they’ll have the opposite effect, making you sound pretentious and arrogant. They’re also less likely to be understood and more awkward to read.
When Hemingway was criticized by Faulkner for his limited word choice he replied:
Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
"Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree" - Ezra Pound. Accordingly, any words that don’t contribute meaning to a passage dilute its power. Less is always better. Always.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
This one is frequently broken, probably because many people don’t know the difference between active and passive verbs. Here is an example that makes it easy to understand:
The sales target was missed. (passive) We missed the sales target (active).
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
This is tricky because much of the writing used in business can be highly technical. If possible, remain accessible to the average reader. If your audience is highly specialized this is a judgment call. You don’t want to drag on with unnecessary explanation, but try to help people understand what you’re writing about. You want your ideas to spread right?
Bonus Rule: Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.
And if the above rules are not easy enough to follow, just remember what Einstein said:
"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."