A Copy Editor’s Advice to Writers: Don’t write things that don’t mean anything!

UPDATE! In case you’d like to hear the gem of a corporate anthem mentioned in this essay, here ’tis —

Our Mission is Success” — Global Technology, Deutsche Bank.

“to attain a successful outcome”
“to get the results you want”
“will result in a positive outcome”
“for the best possible resolution”
“to obtain the best result possible”
“to help you achieve your goals”

Don’t write these things. Seriously, don’t. I’m just going to have to rewrite them for you.

These phrases are examples of what’s called “filler” — strings of words that sound good but don’t actually mean anything.

And how do we know they’re filler?

Story Time!

Once upon a time, I worked for a corporate investment bank in Manhattan’s financial district. This was on the upswing of the tech bubble, a time of great optimism when it seemed like the money would just keep rolling in forever. Companies were competing for talent and generally making fools of themselves, so when somebody piped up with, “Hey, why don’t we commission a corporate anthem!” nobody said, “That is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”

So lots of companies had anthems, and larger ones had anthems for each department. I worked in the Global Technology department, and our very own anthem was called “Our Mission is Success”.

“Our Mission is Success” was thoroughly awful. And largely unsingable, mainly because of the choking sobs of laughter that followed brilliant lyrics like:

Global Technology
is no easy game to play
a new challenge, anyway
for all of us, each and every day

Not only was it just a dreadful song in general, but my bank had recently been bought by a massive German bank (yes, that one), and it was pretty clear that the song was an export. The pronunciation was actually quite charming, but further detracted from the anthem-i-ness by seeming to reinforce our newly precarious position:

Ghlobal Technolochee
iss no eassy game to play
a new challench anyway
for all of uz, each and efry day

But the central failure of “Our Mission is Success”? The basic premise was flawed. My husband’s response was… well, his FIRST response was, “HOly God, what the hell is this?” But his second response was the quote: “‘One cannot pursue success; success must ensue.'” Which means: success cannot be your mission, because success is not an action.

“What did you do today, honey?”
“I succeeded!”

One can succeed at an action, but saying “I succeeded!” is about as useful as saying, “I threw!” You threw… what? A ball? Your back out? Up?

Not only is success not an action, it is not an option. When naming an action, the success of that action is implied:

“What did you do today, honey?”
“I edited a website for a law firm.”

We can assume that the editing was successful — or at least completed — because if it hadn’t been, I would have said something like,

“I attempted to edit a website for a law firm, but…”
“I was supposed to perform heart surgery, except…”
“I wanted to go to the gym, really…”

If you had successfully gone to the gym, you would have said simply, “I went to the gym.” (But you didn’t go to the gym, did you? I know, neither did I.)

So let’s consider the following:

“We are equipped to handle tough litigation or amicable negotiations to obtain the best result possible for you.”

First let’s clear out the brush: “We are equipped to handle” means “we can.” And “obtain the best possible result” means “succeed.”

If we parse the meaning, we get something like:

“We (can) (successfully) litigate or negotiate for you.”

But success is implied, right? So strip that out and we have:

“We can litigate or negotiate for you.”

OK! NOW we’re getting somewhere. THIS was the point of the sentence all along — this firm is prepared to litigate OR to negotiate, whichever makes more sense. When we figure out what we’re trying to say, the saying becomes much more straightforward. And when we strip things down to the studs, we’re almost forced to say something more useful:

“At Lockjaw, Chubby and Fey, we negotiate when we can and litigate when we must.”

OR maybe this:

“The attorneys at Lockjaw, Chubby and Fey are known as skilled negotiators. However, if negotiations fail, we are not afraid to take your case to court.”

OR possibly,

“Lockjaw, Chubby and Fey will negotiate or litigate, whichever will get us the most money… YOU! I’m sorry, I meant you — whichever will get you the most money.”

(But surely not.)

If you don’t like those and have thought of a better one, use yours, by all means!

The point is this: if you’re having a hard time figuring out how to say it, take a step back and think about exactly what you’re trying to say. Rephrase things in the simplest terms possible, then strip out whatever is obvious, trite, mere formulaic filler. When you’ve gotten down to the one idea you really must get across, you’ll have a much easier time figuring out how to pitch it.

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Filed under DfW Holds Forth!, Tragic Biz-Speak, Writing and Writers

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