Kudzu. If you’ve flown over the Southeastern United States, and happened to look out the window, it’s likely you saw green, green, and more green. Most likely that was kudzu, “a serious invasive plant in the United States,” which spreads at the rate of 150,000 acres every year, according to Wikipedia.
From its probable beginnings in China, kudzu spread to Japan and Korea. Kudzu was introduced to the United States at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and to the Southeast in 1883 at the New Orleans Exposition. It was praised as an ornamental plant, easily grown, and perfect for shading southern porches.
It went on from there. Among its many other uses, kudzu was highly valued as protein-rich cattle fodder, and as a no-maintenance cover plant to prevent soil erosion. So effective was kudzu in helping control erosion that the government helped by distributing 85 million seedlings and funded planting them. In short, starting with 1876, kudzu was a pretty good deal. It would grow anywhere, nothing could kill it, and there were multiple uses for it.
Sadly, when the Boll weevil struck, and farmers were forced to move elsewhere, kudzu, with no maintenance or control, was left to its own devices, which were very good indeed. It devoured, covered, and smothered everything in sight, from houses to barns, to fields, trees, and entire forests; the valuable areas it was meant to protect got buried, or were totally destroyed.
And, in 1997, this miraculous vine – kudzu – was placed on the Federal Noxious Weed List, having consumed an estimated 7,400,000 acres of land in the Southeastern United States, and is now found across the country. Talk about unforeseen consequences!
So what does all of this have to with business writing?
That was then, this is now.
In 1876, business writing was far lengthier, far more cumbersome than it is now. Back in the day, there were many stilted phrases signifying little if anything, other than the cultural courtesy standards of the day that were considered a necessary part of the form, if not the message.
As time went by, some of the old phrases dropped out, to be replaced by new ones. Many of them were the words and phrases many of us were taught to use as a necessary part of business correspondence.
And now? Not.
Today’s business writing, while not rude, must be short and make the point immediately to be read at all, let alone to be taken seriously.
Think of the words and phrases – and even the content – that create “overload” for your reader as being like the kudzu, smothering your valuable ideas as they consume, bury, and destroy.
The kudzu solution today seems to be mowing or cutting back. In short, a heavy “edit.” So, if kudzu represents the words, phrases, and content you may be using, what are some of the elements that need to be “mowed or pruned” to help your reader uncover the “valuable areas” – your meaning?
Take a look at some of those phrases we use: “thanking you in advance,” “please feel free to…” “if we can be of further assistance,” and so on. Then include your favorite redundant phrases like, “I am writing to tell you….”
What’s wrong with those?
– You can thank the reader after it happens. In fact, this gives you a good, and pleasant reason for further contact.
– How about that “feel free” bit. Why should your reader not feel free? If the reader reads it literally, “feel free” could even be construed as a put down, so not only is there the issue of using an unnecessary bit of words, but a tonal problem as well. Fortunately, you’re not in too much trouble, because this extra group of words is so unnecessary it’s just skipped over in most cases, and not read at all. So trim the kudzu! You don’t need it.
-While the idea of offering assistance is pleasant, you could offer it in some other way if you really feel you need to. But if you have provided assistance clearly, understandably, and in appropriate detail (remember that too much can be just as confusing and inappropriate as too little), you don’t need this particular phrase at all.
-In addition, watch out for that word “further.” You may have just told your reader that he or she did not get the job, the loan, or was not accepted for the school of his or her choice. Any further help of this nature is not likely to be welcomed. Your reader may not think you have provided any assistance at this point, let alone want “further assistance.”
– And finally you do not have to tell your reader you are writing. He or she already knows it.
Share your favorite surplus words and phrases to help other readers recognize some they may be using. Let us hear from you.
Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
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