A 10-Step Program for Ridding Your Writing of Empty Superlatives

In the thought leadership content game, we are awash in a sea of superlatives. All projects are highly successful, and most are profoundly transformational. Experts are deeply experienced, and company employees are greatly empowered by extraordinary change management programs.

These superlatives spritzed over thought leadership writing make it easy for readers to dismiss these projects, experts, and programs as mere marketing collateral or advertising. Your target audience doesn’t read thought leadership to be pitched to. It reads it to be informed. Spurious superlatives undermine the seriousness of your work.

How can you stop using superlatives? The same way you break any bad habit. You enter a 12-step program. Superlative-Users Anonymous only has 10 steps because it skips prayer and meditation and doesn’t make you apologize to all your readers. Of course, if you’d like to, feel free.

1. I admit I am powerless over superlatives.

To fix a problem, you must acknowledge that you have one. For example, are you unable to resist calling your business’s latest initiative highly successful? Do you think describing it as highly successful, rather than just successful, makes it sound more successful? If so, admit it: You have a problem with superlatives.

2. I believe that a Power greater than myself can restore my writing to sanity.

Whatever or whoever you imagine this Power to be (Shakespeare, your readers, your boss), Superlative-Users Anonymous will restore your writing to sanity. The program works if you work it, so work it.

3. I’ve decided to work the program faithfully.

Okay, joining the program requires a leap of faith. But if you’ve recently written a LinkedIn bio saying you have “extensive and deep experience in a wide range of areas” instead of “experience in many areas,” what have you got to lose? You’re not impressing anyone by saying your experience is extensive, deep, and wide; you’re just blowing your own horn off-key.

4. I will make a searching and fearless inventory of my writing.

Have you written that your company “successfully rolled out a new strategy” instead of “rolled out a new strategy?” Would you be writing about it if it was unsuccessful? So, what does successfully add? Work the steps. The best writers are ruthless editors of their own copy.

5. Admit to myself the exact nature of my wrongs.

Why do you abuse superlatives? Is it because deep down you suspect your expertise is not all that impressive, and sticking “extensive” or “deep” before expertise makes it sound better? Everyone has doubts about themselves. That’s human. But you’ve either got the goods, or you don’t. Adding superlatives just makes you appear egocentric and possibly fraudulent. Be honest with yourself and write from an honest place. That produces the best writing.

6. I’m ready to remove these defects of writing.

If you’re determined to continue using hollow superlatives and think they improve your articles, I can’t help you. No one can. 

7. Humbly ask for help.

Rhetoriq is here for you.

8. I will make a list of all the superlatives I’ve abused and edit them out.

This is from a white paper published by a big consulting firm discussing a survey it conducted on innovation: “Just 20 percent of CSOs feel their company is highly prepared for disruptive innovation.”

I suggest that removing highly – “Just 20 percent of CSOs feel their company is prepared for disruptive innovation” – is stronger. The word “highly,’ when modifying “prepared,” raises the unanswerable question of what moderately prepared would look like. So, start editing.

9. I will continue to monitor my writing, and when I find a superlative, I will remove it.

Using superlatives is a hard habit to break. (By the way, it’s not extraordinarily hard, or even very hard, hard is hard, ‘nuff said. And we don’t have to say it’s hard to break successfully; I don’t know how one unsuccessfully breaks a habit.) It’s easy to slip and write something like this: “To realize the full potential of the industrial internet, businesses and governments will need to overcome a number of important hurdles.”

Take a moment. That seems harmless, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, It’s not; you’ve just grown used to sloppy superlatives stashed inside vacuous sentences. That’s why constant monitoring is important.

Ask yourself why any business or government would want to realize the partial potential of the industrial internet? What does full add? And does putting “important” in front of “hurdles” make those hurdles higher? (And let’s not get into how “a number of” modifies the already plural hurdles in any meaningful way.) So, let’s practice our editing: “To realize the potential of the industrial internet, businesses and governments will need to overcome hurdles.” That may not be stylish, but in terms of meaning, has anything been lost in translation? I think not.

10. Having had a spiritual awakening after reading this blog, I will carry its message to others addicted to the use of superlatives.

It’s not enough to stop using superlatives yourself. If you are a content director or a writer at a professional services firm or any firm that creates thought leadership content, it’s up to you to spread the word. I suggest sharing this blog with your fellow addicts. They will thank you for it. Or not. But it’s the right thing to do.

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