Clean up your writing by eliminating deadwords

I was just reading an article in the Feb. 2 issue of Forbes about the rising cost of college as compared to the value of education. As a well-educated (and expensively educated) person, I’m going to restrain myself from commenting on either side of the issue.

I will complain, however, about the article’s use of the word “sheepskin” to refer to a diploma or college degree: “…dramatically undermining any value a sheepskin adds.”

A few weeks ago, there was an episode of the show “House” that had a character, a working-class fellow who owned a scrapyard. Talking to his son the night before graduation, he mentions wanting to watch his son “get that sheepskin.”

Please! Who has ever used that word, deliberately and honestly, in casual conversation? “Sheepskin” is one of those words that no one actually uses and should have died out years ago. My belief is that it’s kept alive by writers who know lots of words and simply get bored with using “diploma” or “degree” or anything similar. “Sheepskin” has a nice Shakespearean tone to it, and if challenged, the writer can always launch into the “well, in the olden days, they actually…” story and further impress people about her extensive knowledge of stuff that matters much less than we thought it did in college.

Full disclosure: I was an English major at a liberal arts college, and I really liked it. I read a lot, and I am trying to write more. I seriously considered becoming a professor. To add insult to injury, I have an Ivy-League law degree and started out as a litigator, one of those people who writes long persuasive argumentative documents and letters. I have already walked the path these people are, with one small difference. I’ve listened more to the people around me and realize when language is just not appropriate.

These phrases have effectively turned into jargon or argot [see, I did it there just to prove a point — argot is a French word, borrowed by English, that means slang], even though they don’t meet the traditional definitions of those terms. “Sheepskin” isn’t a term of art among anyone, but using it creates the same effects as the use of jargon: exclusion, hubris, and confusion.

For lawyers, I’ve found the “Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage” to be very helpful at eliminating the stumbling-block phrases that seem to infect legal writing more than you think. I like this book so much that it’s my standard gift to new lawyers and law students that I know. It’s that good.

I’ve always liked Quentin Tarantino’s comment about his films; he said that even if you didn’t like the story, the film, or any number of other things, you had to admit that he wrote great dialogue that sounded realistic. People don’t always talk like they do in Jackie Brown or Pulp Fiction, but they could.

When you’re editing your own writing, think about your audience and catch those words that they wouldn’t ever write themselves. Eliminating the deadwood words will freshen up your writing and help it flow more smoothly.

Please add your suggestions for similar words that should be retired in the comments; I’ll do a round-up post once we have enough nominations.