Communicators no longer compete for space. Today we compete for attention and trust. Become a better content marketer by following these 14 effective writing tips.
The importance of effective writing
Communicators no longer compete for space. Today we compete for attention and trust. We can earn trust and grab attention by always putting the reader first, speaking directly with them, by junking the jargon and by treating the act of writing as a privilege.
Here are 14 effective writing tips to help make you a better communicator.
Be clear. Be concise
Get to the point quickly. Use Josh Bernoff’s Iron Imperative: “Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own”. The tighter you write, the more persuasive you’ll be.
Start each sentence with the meat.
According to a long-running survey undertaken by the American Press Institute, the not-for-profit organisation affiliated with the Newspaper Association of America, readers understand fewer than 10% of sentences containing 43 words, or more.
90% of readers can't understand sentences with 43 words or more says the American Press Institute, the not-for-profit organisation affiliated with the Newspaper Association of America.
Use contractions. Create a strong bond with your reader with a conversational tone. Use “don't”, “won't”, “she'll” rather than “do not”, “will not”, “she will”, etc.
Use 'you' and 'your'
Using pronouns like “you”, “I” and “we” will help you sound more conversational. Lift your business writing by making a direct connection between the writer and the reader.
Simple principles used simply won't make you seem unsophisticated. Your readers will appreciate your concise writing.
“A slight inclination of the cranium is as adequate as a spasmodic movement of one optic towards an equine quadruped utterly devoid of any visionary capacity.”
“A nod’s a good as a wink to a blind horse.”
I read English Literature for my first degree. I spent the initial terms learning technical concepts - wearing these abstruse theories on my sleeve. Littering my written assignments with polysyllabic offerings. By my final year I’d embedded these concepts.I could translate the themes into everyday language. Don’t confuse simple with simplistic. You can still write simply while communicating complex ideas.
Lose the passive voice. Concentrate on the active voice. The active voice is lively. It supports brevity. It makes written content more engaging, too. The active voice helps the reader identify the subject of the sentence.
Having trouble working out if your sentence is using the passive voice? Here’s a simple way to recognise it, courtesy of Dr. Rebecca Johnson: "If you insert “by zombies” after the verb and the sentence still makes sense, you’re using the passive voice.
Use short sentences
The shorter your sentences, the more your readers will understand. Check sentences with more than 25 words to see if you can split them for clarity.
A survey by the American Press Institute found:
- Readers understood 100% of a story when the average sentence length was seven words or fewer.
- At 14 words, readers could comprehend more than 90%.
- Comprehension dropped below 10% on sentences of 43 words or more
Make paragraphs short, too
Feature one idea per paragraph. Keep paragraph lengths to three or four lines. But, don’t be afraid of the one-line paragraph.
Be wary of imprecise adverbs, adjectives and nouns
What does: “a growing number” mean?
How about: “millions of people agree”?
They’re both examples of generalisation. Aim to be precise. How much has the number grown by? How many people agree?
What of adverbs? Instead of writing: “sales volumes increased dramatically”. Consider writing: “sales volumes surged”. Better yet: “Sales volumes surged by 50% in the last 12 months”.
Culling adjectives makes your copy shorter, so it can be read and understood faster and easier. But don’t abandon them wholesale. Specific adjectives boost the credibility of your copy. Emotion-rich adjectives make your readers feel something, and they will remember how you made them feel. Choose carefully.
Be consistent. Follow a style guide
Use a standard set of rules to ensure your published content is consistent, polished, recognisable, and puts the reader first.
The use of language evolves. Your style guide should be part of an iterative process, too. Tinker with it. Build in feedback.
Be sensitive to jargon
Visualise your audience. Write directly to an average reader within this audience. Jargon is double edged. It makes those who understand it feel as though they’re part of a private club. It alienates everyone else from your work. Be sensitive to jargon.
Don’t be a jerk
"Do not be hectoring or arrogant. Those who disagree with you are not necessarily stupid or insane. Nobody needs to be described as silly: let your analysis show that he is. When you express opinions, do not simply make assertions. The aim is not just to tell readers what you think, but to persuade them; if you use arguments, reasoning and evidence, you may succeed. Go easy on the oughts and shoulds." This is an extract from the introduction to The Economist Style Guide.
Use a spell check
Better yet, team up with a writing buddy or work with a professional proof reader.
Organise your thoughts
Lead the reader through your article. Don’t let them guess where you’re going. Show them. Provide signposts. Organise your thoughts and deliver them strongly. Don’t circle back and repeat your arguments. Sythesise, organise and structure your ideas once. Powerfully.
Give yourself enough time to edit
“I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time”. Wrote Blaise Pascal, the 17th Century French mathematician. Give the words time to bed down before you attempt to make them work harder. The first draft of anything is usually sub par. Leave the article overnight and tighten up with fresh eyes if you have the luxury of time.