Posted by John Hewitt
Writing matters. Once you've attracted someone to a web page, it takes compelling content to keep them there and achieve the desired outcome. And even when a website is full of images, interactives and videos, the quality of the writing still does most of the persuading most of the time.
Not everyone can be a great writer, but most people can be competent. It's mainly a matter of taking care and getting the basics right. Here are my top tips for improving anyone's writing.
1. Keep your sentences short and under control.
When sentences are long and unruly and go on and on without seeming to get anywhere in particular people either get confused or stop reading. Short sentences have more impact. A famous piece of research by the American Press Institute found that readers understood 100 percent of an eight-word sentence, 90 percent of a fourteen-word sentence, but only 10 percent of a 43-word monster.
Ernest Hemingway put it best: "One thought, one sentence".
2. Avoid clichés going forward.
'Going forward' was voted most irritating business-speak phrase in a survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management. It's one of many examples that are almost always meaningless sentence filler, yet many people seem to believe that this kind of language gives them credibility. In fact business jargon alienates the majority of readers who don't live in that corporate bubble.
If you want to write (and talk) like a successful business person, why not choose Warren Buffett? His trademarks are simplicity of expression and clarity of thought, as in: "Find something you are passionate about. Only work with people you like. If you go to work every morning with your stomach churning, you're in the wrong business." He doesn't use business clichés, and he's richer and more powerful than anyone who does.
3. Read it again, preferably aloud, then rewrite it.
Type 'quotes about writing' into Google and you'll see that famous authors are unanimous. The first draft is always rubbish, and we all receive emails every day that prove this. There's only one way to make a piece of writing as good as it can be: read it back to yourself, then correct all the mistakes, repetitions and overlong sentences you're sure to find.
Better still, read it aloud. Because as well as all the mistakes, you'll spot things that just sound wrong. And when you've made them sound better they'll read better. Writing that's a pleasure to read keeps people on the page and gets the message remembered.
4. Have fun and be unpredictable
This doesn't mean 'try to make everything funny'. The appropriate tone of voice is a big part of good writing. But it does mean trying to use less obvious and overused words, even when you're being serious about a serious subject. If you find yourself calling something 'great' or 'nice' for example, think again. There's definitely a more precise and appropriate word.
5. Be punctilious about punctuation
Punctuation is important to make communication clear. Changing the punctuation can change the meaning, and the manuals are full of humorous examples, such as: 'Let's eat Grandpa' versus 'Let's eat, Grandpa'.
But the other important role of correct punctuation is to make the writer seem as literate and professional as the reader. Appearing sloppy or ignorant is bad for business. Take apostrophes for example. Getting them wrong is the written equivalent of walking into a meeting with a light sprinkling of croissant crumbs on your jacket. So here's a potted guide to how apostrophes work:
- If Ted owns a cup it's Ted's cup
- If two Teds own the same cup it's both Teds' cup
- If you are merging two little words into one, an apostrophe indicates that some letters are missing, so it is becomes it's and there is becomes there's
- If you are using its to denote ownership, there is no apostrophe
- If you are just adding an s to make a word plural, you do not need an apostrophe: peas not pea's
If you find all this insultingly obvious, congratulations. You're in the 50% of the adult UK population who know how apostrophes work.
I could go on. But knowing when to stop is another key to good writing. So here's one final piece of advice: if you want your communications to be well written, work with a company that employs skilled professional writers. Big Brand Ideas for example.