Readable Writing Rule #8: Don’t Over-Love Yourself

Can you be too humble and modest in your writing?

If such an inferior writer as myself may be permitted to offer an opinion, I would hesitantly venture to say yes, although I would immediately and happily withdraw my assertion if just one of the countless writers more knowledgeable than myself would even hint that my answer falls short of perfection.

There’s no better way to sound phony…

…than to fill your writing with unnecessary praise and oh-so-humble remarks, such as:

  • “In closing, I am most sincerely, humbly and respectfully yours…”
  • “Such an insignificant person as this author never imagined he would have the privilege of meeting such an illustrious person.”
  • “I feel unworthy of this great honor represented by opportunity to present to you my ideas…”
  • “Kindly bear with me as my humble prose attempts to recreate…”

Excessive praise or humbleness often works against you

The more you tell people how modest or whatever it is you keep saying you are, the less they believe it. So don’t keep telling the reader how honored, privileged and humble you are. Let the feelings come through in the writing, all by themselves.

Instead of, “During my many years of training, I never imagined I would have the honor of assisting such an illustrious physician in performing such delicate and able surgery,” just say, “It was an honor to work with you.”

Instead of slathering on the praise eight layers thick with, “I’m always amazed at how astute Dr. Smith is in making rapid diagnoses in impossible cases that no one else can understand,” try “Dr. Smith saved another life with his rapid diagnosis of a difficult case.” A sincere compliment is much better than multiple awe-struck phrases that come across phony.

The same applies to negative descriptions, curses and other unflattering remarks

To say that, “Cancer is the scourge of mankind, a black hole in the cosmos of humanity, a leper among diseases, a cruel, vicious, heartless gutter-germ,” is just a bit much.

Calling cancer, “a black hole in the cosmos of humanity,” says about as little as praising a drug as, “the glittering gem in the princely tiara of pharmaceutical medicine.”

You can get the same idea across by writing, “Cancer, the number-two killer disease in the U.S. today, can be painful, prolonged and fatal.” Whether praising or cursing, don’t pile it on too thick. Less is more.

Remove the unnecessary flowery figures out of the following sentences

  1. It is my most humble opinion…
  2. My brilliant predecessors have been, as it were, Olympian gods shining in the brilliant light of knowledge, compared to me, a mere mortal toiling in the darkness of ignorance.
  3. I never knew I would have the honor, the privilege of learning so much about the true nature of the glorious human spirit from such humble people as these patients I was honored to treat.
  4. The notion that anyone but medical doctors, forged in the crucible of knowledge and dedication, could be qualified to diagnose illnesses is an abhorrent blasphemy.
  5. The immune system is our powerful Department of Defense, our mighty “doctor within,” our holy guardian, the boxer who has never learned the meaning of the work “quit.”

Suggested answers

  1. I believe…
  2. (Don’t bother trying to de-fluff this sentence. Skip the whole thing.)
  3. I am constantly amazed at how much I learn about the human spirit from my patients. (Or: I have learned some impressive lessons about the human spirit from my patients.)
  4. Only medical doctors are qualified to diagnose illnesses.
  5. The immune system, our biological “Department of Defense,” never quits.

For more ways to make your writing sparkle, see “Readable Writing Review.”

I’m Barry Fox, a New York Times #1 bestselling ghostwriter. I help executives, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and top professionals create top-notch memoirs and business books. I can also guide you through the self-publishing process. Call me at 818-917-5362.