The previous blog entry listed nine basic principles and general rules of effective writing. If you can master punctuation, and erase text talk and the inappropriate use of capital letters, you will be taken much more seriously by your readers. And, if you meticulously proofread your work, read regularly and often, and practise, your writing will improve.
The next step is to work on your style. There are no hard and fast rules that apply to all types of writing. As highlighted in the previous blog, your first priority should be to write for your reader. Consequently, the words that you use will be determined by your audience. The following guidance primarily refers to a professional audience – via emails, websites and other promotional material – but it may also apply to other types of writing.
1. Forget (some of) what you learned at school
Some ‘rules’ about writing that you may have learned at school are just plain wrong. Contrary to what your teacher may have told you, you can start a sentence with ‘but’ or ‘and.’ And if you don’t believe this, read any newspaper or novel and you’ll see that professionals follow neither of these pieces of misguided advice.
2. Direct, precise and concise
One of the greatest misconceptions about good writing is that it involves complex sentences, impressive words and clever phrasing. This might be true for some forms of fiction, but it does not apply to promotional writing. You should avoid verbosity at all times, and leave the flowery language to the poets. Don’t try to amaze the reader with your vocabulary: get to the point; say what you really mean; and always look for opportunities to remove words.
3. Show, don’t tell
One of the guiding principles of story telling is, “show, don’t tell”. In other words, instead of telling the reader that you are ‘an experienced actor’, give a few details of the five years you appeared in a well-known TV series. This simple technique is used by scriptwriters, novelists and journalists to engage their audiences more closely with the story and characters. There will be times when you need to be brief and ‘tell’, but whenever you get the chance to describe yourself in more descriptive terms, try to ‘show’ the real you.
4. Avoid clichés and empty words
Everyone has their own definition but generally, a cliché is a phrase that is so overused – or misused – that it has lost its value. The English language is riddled with clichés and sometimes it is very difficult to avoid them. But if you are ever tempted to use phrases like: ‘I’m a glass half full type of person’, ‘life is what you make it’ or ‘live each day to the max’, try to think of a more original and descriptive phrase.
Likewise, some words are rather empty of meaning. The classic example is ‘nice’, but ‘cool’, ‘interesting’ and ‘exciting’ have become increasingly vacuous in recent years. The long-term answer to clichés and empty words is to improve your vocabulary by reading more and self-critiquing your writing.
Also, stay away from jargon that you think everyone knows the meaning of but, in fact, goes over your audience’s head.
5. Steer clear of superlatives
When describing yourself – in a profile, a website or a CV – you may be tempted to use a superlative or two in order to stress your abilities. Confidence is to be encouraged but if you state that you are ‘the best’, ‘the greatest’ or ‘the most experienced’ then your reader might demand some evidence of your bold claims. Such self-assessments are totally subjective, of course, and a much better strategy is to let the reader decide for themselves.
6. Leave humour to the comedians
Even professional writers find it hard to inject humour into their words. It takes years of practice to master the art, so it’s advisable to forget about trying to make your reader laugh. A badly-phrased witticism or quip will confuse or, at worst, offend the other person, and sarcasm is particularly hazardous. Stand-up comedians can pull it off because they have timing, tone of voice and facial expressions at their disposal. These elements are essential for making sarcasm work, but none are available to writers.
7. The power of threes
There are two easy and effective writing techniques based on the power of threes. First, aim to write introductory emails in three paragraphs. Open by stating who you are and why you are writing. The second paragraph should give more details of your proposal; and the third should suggest the next step. Second, try to keep lists to three components. For example, ‘Previous clients include the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.’ No one has explained why this works but listen to skilful orators – like President Obama – and you will notice that they often follow this principle to make their most powerful statements.
8. The danger of synonyms
You should always try to avoid repeating the same words, but this can be difficult when writing promotional material. Microsoft Word and other word processing software might suggest synonyms, but you need to be very careful when considering the options on offer. Some words might be deemed perfect substitutes by your software but under closer inspection they’re clearly not. For example, Microsoft Word suggested ‘suspicious’ as a synonym for ‘careful’ but it is evidently inappropriate in this context. Again, the key to developing your vocabulary – and understanding which words are real synonyms – is by reading regularly and often.
9. Resist the urge to emulate others
If you are struggling to find the right words, you might be tempted to check out other people’s websites to see how they’ve expressed themselves. You might even ‘borrow’ some of their phrases, give them an edit and then include them in your own promotional material. There is nothing wrong with taking inspiration from others, but remember to read critically. Look for clichés, empty words, jargon, and other symptoms of bad writing. Just because someone else has fallen into these traps doesn’t mean that you need to automatically follow.