Is your writing too hesitant?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today, I discuss a blog post addressing the question: is your writing too hesitant….

I love the phrase The Four Horsemen of Hesitation. Isn’t that evocative?

The original four horsemen, of course, are described in the last book of the New Testament in the Book of Revelation. The four beings that ride out on white, red, black, and pale horses represent Death, Famine, War, and Conquest.

The four horsemen of hesitation, is a term coined by Ann Janzer, in a blog post running under the headline, “Speech Patterns that Threaten Authority in Writing.” Paraphrasing the work of Robin Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, Janzer summarizes those four horsemen as:

  1. Expressions of uncertainty: I thinkperhaps, or disclaimers like I may be mistaken, but…
  2. Hedges: Weakening words and phrases like sort ofkind of, or somewhat
  3. Tag questions: Phrases or questions seeking immediate confirmation (isn’t it? Don’t you agree?)
  4. Intensifiers: Words like really or very that, despite appearances, weaken rather than strengthen the point (I’m really serious.)

Janzer and Lakoff identify a hugely important principle for corporate communicators, in particular. Any sign of weakness or hesitation will damage your core message for employees. When you’re writing in a corporate environment, be sure to ask yourself: is your writing too hesitant? To avoid that problem, make sure you search for (and remove) the following words or phrases:

  • I think
  • perhaps
  • I may
  • sort of
  • kind of
  • somewhat
  • ? (double-check all questions to ensure they’re not seeking immediate confirmation)
  • very
  • really

Did you notice how I used horseman #3 above, with my tag question “Isn’t that evocative?” I did that deliberately!

The image at the top of the post is a detail from an 1887 Four Horseman painting by Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Oct. 7/19.

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