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My job requires formal writing, however after self-review, I found that my writing does not have enough substance. This was confirmed as feedback from higher-ups implied that I use too many phrasal verbs or have a tendency to over-write things using unnecessarily lofty words.

I was recommended to read this essay by Orwell:

https://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit

Basically, he cautions against the abuse of:

  • Metaphors
  • Operators/verbal false limbs
  • Pretentious diction
  • Meaningless words

And advises to:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Though the piece was overly political for my taste, but I still found the notion that "The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness" very compelling. Here is a great example of what he means by "concrete":

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Modern English version:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

In a few months time, after making a conscious effort to elevate my "concreteness," I feel more confident with my writing and I received positive feedback. I think about prose so differently now. It amazes me that such a short piece made such a large impact on my writing.

Question

Can someone recommend a commercially available writing guide / book that has a similar framework?

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  • In the US it's called 'Hemingway style' (probably so it could be credited to an American) – should be called "Capote style" (but he wasn't manly-enough, so it's framed as a deliberate affectation when he did it, not 'natural' like Hemingway). It's neutrally called 'journalist style" as it was a trend coming out of generation of pre-WW2 journalists (like Orwell). It's NOT the only way to communicate, but it's praised by male editors for sounding modern, masculine and direct – women are generally not allowed to use it, and there have been many trends since the 1930s that break these rules. – wetcircuit Apr 30 '20 at 11:29
  • I think that any book or site on the use of plain language will help. Take a look at the Canadian government site, for instance, as an introduction to the subject. – Jason Bassford Apr 30 '20 at 17:35
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'On Writing Well' by William Zinsser has some good advice about improving your writing. 'Elements of Style' is dated but has some good ideas. (I picked up a second-hand copy for a couple of pounds.)

However, you might find it more useful to use digital tools to check your work. Look at the recommendations they make and see if you agree. You could try Grammarly, ProWriting Aid, Hemingway Editor or Language Tool. All have their strengths and weaknesses. All have a free version that is useful. I use them all at different times, depending upon what I want to check.

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Adding to the good suggestions mentioned before. Consider regularly referring to style guide. Microsoft style guide for technical writing is good for formal writing. It has a lot of guidance on cutting out fluff and writing in action-oriented sentences, framed in active voice, and in shorter sentences from readability perspective.

As suggested before, the books are to know the theory and develop a practice over time. For immediate review checks, some tools will come in real handy. Most tools follow the style guides to a reasonable extent. I like Grammarly and Acrolinx but these are paid and costly options. Microsoft Editor comes bundled with a MS Office 365 subscription and is paid too. There are some tools available for Google Docs. And here are some good open-source alternatives if you prefer those: https://opensource.com/article/20/3/open-source-writing-tools.

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