How Vampire Words Suck The Life Out Of Your Business Writing

Sep 7, 2022

Imagine your boss issues the following email at the end of the day: “I’m bringing in bagels tomorrow morning.”

Yay, bagels! You make a mental note to skip breakfast tomorrow to make room for schmear.

Then your boss emails: “I’m going to prioritize bringing in bagels tomorrow morning.”

OK, a little less definite, but still a high probability of bagels. I mean, it’s a priority, right?

Then, a third email: “I’m going to focus on prioritizing bringing in bagels tomorrow morning.”

Bagels are starting to look iffy.

And, finally, she writes: “I’m beginning the process of focusing on prioritizing bringing in bagels tomorrow morning.”

Does that leave you with any hope of bagels? No, it does not. It’s just going to be you and your Cheerios tomorrow morning.

Your boss might be every bit as sincere in her last statement as in her first, but she won’t be able to convince anyone of that. Her original statement about bringing in bagels has been diluted by the addition of “beginning the process,” “prioritize” and “focus” — vampire words and phrases that drain the vitality out of writing and weaken our communications.

Business writing is a Transylvania full of vampire words that fasten themselves onto perfectly good sentences, suck them dry and leave them limp and bloodless on the page. What should have been a simple memo or email gets cluttered with unnecessary qualifying phrases until sentences collapse of their own ponderousness and lack of clarity.

But this isn’t simply a matter of style. Vampire words also imply a lack of commitment and purpose, even a sense of self-doubt. Compare these two sentences:

Team A will analyze the results and deliver a recommendation.

Team B will focus on analyzing the results and leverage its assets to prioritize delivering a recommendation.  

Which team do you trust to deliver a recommendation? The action in Team B —analyzing results and delivering a recommendation — is besieged by vampire words and left sounding uncertain and indefinite.

But there’s good news. According to folklore, vampires can’t come into your house without an invitation. Likewise, vampire words can’t enter your writing without you allowing it.

Since that’s the case, why do we invite the bloodsuckers in?

A lot of it stems from an unmerited distrust of the simple declarative sentence. Remember those grade school sentences about Dick and Jane going out to play? Or the Hemingway you read in high school? That simple, straightforward style works in business writing, as well:

We will deliver the report by the end of the month.

We will conduct an A/B test on the competing headlines and report the results.

The test group liked the blue logo better than the red one.   

I know what you’re thinking: Those are short sentences composed of short words. What if people think I don’t know any big words or can’t write long sentences? What if people think I can’t twist incentive into a verb? 

Rest easy. Put yourself in the shoes of the recipient of a white paper or report composed of clear, direct language and free of vampire words. Wouldn’t that be refreshing? Wouldn’t it be nice to finish the text without any lingering doubt as to what parts of it meant or whether you peered hard enough between the lines?

Communicating clearly and simply with business associates and clients – with minimal jargon as my colleague Megan Moriarty would say – might astonish them at first, but they’ll come to appreciate it. And, who knows, they might even reciprocate. Think of the misunderstandings and confusion that could be avoided.

So review your business writing and drive stakes through those vampire words. If necessary, hang a string of garlic cloves over your laptop as a reminder.