Improve Your Writing in 9 Simple Steps
Want to write really, really well? Here is great advice from an expert.
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Writing well isn't easy. In fact, it's "hard work," said William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. "A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time . . . If you find that writing is hard, it's because it is hard."
But just because writing is . . . well, hard, that doesn't mean you can't use techniques to make writing a little easier. For inspiration, I turned to my colleague Jane Shannon, who was my co-author on The Definitive Guide to HR Communication, and who wrote a handy little book called 73 Ways to Improve Your Employee Communication Program.
Shannon is one of those people who make writing look easy because her work is so relaxed and conversational. But although Shannon never lets you see her sweat, she's laboring just like the rest of us.
Here is Shannon advice on how to improve your writing in 9 simple steps:
1. Read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Yes, it's a classic, but it still offers valuable advice. If you haven't read it, do so. If it's been awhile, pick it up again. As co-author William Strunk, Jr., wrote: "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."
2. Use the word "you" a lot. Shannon writes: "First of all, using the word 'you' immediately causes you to focus on your audience. An email that starts out, 'You have an important opportunity to help our company succeed," has a different impact than an email that begins, 'I want to share some thoughts I have on the success of the company.'"
By identifying the benefit you're offering to the reader, and then working it into a sentence that begins with the word "you," you'll be amazed how much stronger that makes your writing.
3. Create more powerful headlines. Too many headlines are labels: Introduction, Your Benefits, Departments, etc. Shannon's advice: "Instead of using labels, write a headline that highlights the most important concept you want the reader to know. That way, if the reader skims (which we all do), he or she will still have the information that matters."
4. Make it easy for readers to learn what you want them to learn. Don't force readers to slog through stuff they don't need to know to get to the stuff they're really interested in.
5. Spell out acronyms and initialisms. Every profession develops a shorthand way of speaking and writing. Your job as a writer is to make sure everyone understands. Whether it's an acronym like SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely) goals or an initialism (which doesn't create an actual word) like SPP for Stock Purchase Plan, spell out what every term in the first reference, then use the abbreviated form from that point on.
6. Eliminate use of the passive voice. "Too much writing in organizations is so passive it would give a visitor from another planet the impression that a) there are no people at the company or b) if people are present, they don't engage in any activities requiring verbs," writes Shannon. "Verbs are your friends!"
When you articulate what happened in an active way ("The CEO has abolished Fridays."), it's infinitely more compelling than if you write in the passive voice. ("It has been decided that the fifth day of the workweek has been dropped.")
7. Use contractions. Contractions make your writing more conversational. The voice you hear when you read sounds like a real human being when you say, "I can't live without Fridays," instead of a poorly recorded elevator voice. ("I cannot imagine a life that does not include the fifth day of the week.")
8. Create a table of contents that serves as a summary. Whenever you produce a longer piece of content--a handbook, manual or reference piece--build a table of contents to summarize what's inside. That way, people can see at a glance where to find what they need.
9. Seek constructive feedback. "One of the hardest hurdles a writer must conquer in order to grow is getting--and gracefully accepting--feedback," Shannon writes. "But when you listen to feedback from a talent writer or editor, your work will improve. Ask someone you respect to review something you've written. Describe your concerns. For example: Is the writing brief enough? Clear enough? Then listen to what the reviewer has to say--and take the advice."