PR Tips | To argue effectively, write clearly & concisely

PR Tips | To argue effectively, write clearly & concisely


Dave Barry’s “How to Argue Effectively” recently came across my desk. Although the satirical essay was published more than 30 years ago, it’s as biting and hilarious today as it surely was back then.

In the piece, Barry lays out five rules to “win an argument on any topic, against any opponent.”

I spend more than half my time reading and editing op-eds. And one rule, in particular, jumped out: Use Meaningless But Weighty-Sounding Words and Phrases.

Op-eds are short. With only around 700 words to make your argument — with lots of evidence, ideally — there’s no room for fluff. Extraneous words should be cut. Jargon should be avoided. Writing should be clear, tight, and unambiguous.

In other words, there’s no room for “meaningless but weighty-sounding words and phrases.”

Too often, though, I see op-eds that are full of useless words, platitudes, and sound bites. While there might be room for loose writing in, say, the State of the Union, there’s no room for loose writing in an op-ed. Opinion columnists should look to Ernest Hemingway for inspiration, not 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

(It’s worth noting that Ernest Hemingway admired Abraham Lincoln for his clarity and brevity. “It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short,” Hemingway wrote in 1945. “The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.”)

Barry provided a helpful list of “meaningless but weighty-sounding words and phrases” in his 1981 essay:

* Let me put it this way
* In terms of
* Vis-à-vis
* Per se
* As it were
* Quo
* So to speak

This list is just a start, of course.

Popular adjectives like “innovative” and “strategic” are almost always useless. After all, would you ever hire an unstrategic communications firm? Isn’t every pharmaceutical firm innovative?

Popular phrases like “mission critical,” “holistic approach,” and “paradigm shift,” should almost always be replaced with something precise. Phrases like these rarely paint a clear picture.

In an effort to sound smart, many writers clutter up their writing with redundancy. “Foreign imports,” “difficult dilemma,” and “major breakthrough,” are three examples from Mark Nichol’s great list of “50 Redundant Phrases to Avoid.”

Even if you’ve read it before, “How to Argue Effectively” is worth re-reading. So check it out.

David White