It’s Time to Get Your Hedges Under Control

Reposted with permission from Bold Type Inc.’s blog.

If there’s one thing you can do to sound immediately more confident and competent at work, it’s cutting the hedges from your writing.

“Hedging” describes the use of words and phrases that lessen the impact of our statements. Examples include words like “just,” “somewhat,” “really,” and “apparently,” and phrases like “I mean,” “all I know,“ “as far as I can tell,” “to some extent,” and “by the way.” People hedge their writing out of a desire to be polite, to soften bad news, to seem humble, or to convey uncertainty.

Sound familiar? You probably use some of these words and phrases regularly. Most people do.

Like passive voice or split infinitives, these hedging words are not grammatically “wrong.” But using them should be a conscious decision, not a bad habit. If you don’t learn to identify and control this tendency in your own writing, you might be conveying vagueness by accident—and this can hurt both your effectiveness and your credibility.

Here are the possible unintended consequences of your hedging:

  • You seem like don’t know what you’re talking about.
  • It looks like you’re avoiding taking responsibility.
  • Your message is watered down or unfocused.

Not good, right? Each time you communicate with someone at work, you’re doing more than sharing information; you’re shaping your personal brand. Cutting this one bad habit from your writing will help your coworkers and clients think of you as someone who is decisive and reliable.

The benefits of pruning

Gardeners are familiar with the practice of pruning, which is cutting away dead growth to allow new growth to flourish. This is precisely what happens when you cut away the hedges in your sentences.

Pruning is counter-intuitive—how could cutting away parts be productive? But we have to get rid of our more-is-more mentality, especially when it comes to writing. Cutting your hedges—those invasive words like “just” and “fairly” and “to a certain degree”—will allow your message to come through clearly.

For example, imagine you’re emailing your boss an update about a project. Your team is making good progress, but still, you’re concerned you won’t quite finish by the deadline. You want to be honest, but you’re also worried about her reaction, so you try to soften the blow—and maybe you actually want your message to be a little confusing so it doesn’t foreground the fact that you’re behind schedule. So you dash off this email to your boss:

Hi Jen,

I’d say we’ve pretty much completed a decent number of the objectives by now, but it’s somewhat unclear whether we’ll be done around the deadline. I just can’t quite say for sure. But, I can say that we’ll do our best to finish up, and you can definitely count on me updating you along the way.

Best,

Andy

Have you ever sent an email like that? A lot of us have. The problem is, in his effort to soften the blow, Andy ends up sounding unprofessional and as if he’s not in control of his team.

It might be counterintuitive, but delivering the update—the good and the bad—in a straightforward manner is much more likely to keep your boss satisfied and make you sound like you know what you’re doing. Andy would be much better off sending an email like this:

Hi Jen,

We’ve nearly completed the core objectives. I’m concerned that we may not be able to finish all of the remaining objectives by the deadline, but we are making a focused effort to finish. I’ll keep you updated along the way.

Please let me know if you’d like more details about our progress.

Best,

Andy

This email still includes hedging words: “Nearly” and “may not” do convey uncertainty, but in this case, it’s controlled uncertainty. Andy is conveying exactly the message he needs to convey: he’s confident that certain tasks will be done, but he needs to alert his boss that certain other tasks might not.

In email number two, Andy comes across as honest, direct, and responsible. Much better.

The good news

While hedging words and phrases are often invisible to the people who write them, they’re impossible to unsee once you learn to recognize them. Once you start looking for them, you’ll notice that hedges are just extra words that don’t actually change the structure of your sentences. This makes them incredibly easy to eliminate.

With most of my clients, there’s a big “aha” moment when they realize that a word they use all the time is a hedge. “Wow, I didn’t realize how much I write ‘to some extent’!” and “Oh, I use ‘just’ in my writing all the time!” are constant refrains in my classes.

Once you know that “just” or “relatively” is your kryptonite, you’ll be aware of that word and less likely to write it. But you can also easily CTRL+f for your most frequent hedging words in the documents you produce and quickly eliminate any that snuck their way in. Easy, right?

It’s often the simplest changes that make the biggest impact on your writing. We’ll tackle more of the common roadblocks to strong writing on our blog, so stay tuned.

Do you see a lot of hedging when you look at your own writing? How about in others’ writing? What hedging words do you find yourself cutting most often?

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