I offer a bespoke writing, editing and consultancy service for businesses and organisations of all kinds.
You can contact me here.
Every writer I know
has trouble writing.
– Joseph Heller
Most people think they can write. And of course they can. But the sort of writing you learned at school or uni may not be good enough for professional communication. If you find yourself struggling, you may welcome a few pointers. Here are mine.
You’re not telling a joke. Get the dramatic pay-off up front, so people know it will be worth their while to read what you’ve written. Don’t start “A customer survey was carried out…” Hit them with “Most customers think our products need improvement.”
As you write, think about your readers’ reactions. What do they understand at this point? What is their mood? Are you leading them through your argument, or just throwing it at them? Is your vocabulary too obscure, or insultingly childish? Are you simply going on too long? Writing is a performance. Don’t lose your audience.
Active verbs bring prose to life: “The board approved the proposal” is stronger than “The proposal was approved by the board.” Save the passive for focusing on key words: “The fire was caused by a faulty switch”, not “A faulty switch caused the fire.”
Elaborate phrases don’t always impress. More often, they annoy. So don’t write “We lacked the ability to discover a solution” when you mean “We couldn’t find out how to do it.” Everyday phrases are everyday for a reason: they save time. Unlike clichés, which are everyday phrases that try (and fail) to be clever, you can use them freely.
Verbs express action, and action keeps readers reading. So avoid the habit of turning a verb into a noun plus a bland, all-purpose, passive verb. “Tests were carried out on the new car” is soggy and boring. “We tested the new car” is much crisper.
Good writing, like good speaking, is never monotonous. Long sentences are balanced by short ones; facts are interwoven with opinion. Aim for an average sentence length of about 20 words, but don’t be afraid of the occasional sentence that runs to 30. Or two.
Nothing puts people off more than continuous text. Break it up into short paragraphs with plenty of subheads. Bulleted lists help people to skim instead of plodding. And a diagram, as long as it conveys your message accurately, is always better than text.
Long ago, teachers peddled rules that stopped children writing “bad” English – but also ruled out good English. And some schools still teach this stuff. Like not starting a sentence with “and”. Or writing sentences without a verb. All rubbish you can ignore.
Remember: shorter is better. Your first draft will almost certainly need merciless cutting. There’s no point including that fascinating fact if readers have died of boredom before they get to it. Most first drafts can be cut by at least a quarter.
No matter how much you know, if your work is littered with petty mistakes you will look ignorant and unreliable. Never release it until you've (a) checked the spelling
(b) rooted out weak phrases (c) sat on it for 24 hours and then done (a) and (b) again.
Right, that’s it. Now see the tips in action…