United Airlines: how not to write an apology

April 11th, 2017

Airplane with blood spatter
Did you see United Airlines’ response to that shocking footage of a passenger being dragged off a plane? It’s worth reading as a textbook example of how not to write an apology. Read the rest of this entry »

Sentence structure: How to make your sentences much easier to read

February 14th, 2017

Drawing of scientist holding a beaker

These extracts say the same thing but using a different sentence structure. Which one do you find easier to read?

Version 1

The use of polymers to produce prosthetic heart valves that have the positive attributes of current commercial and mechanical valves without any of their drawbacks, has been a focus of research since the 1950s. (34 words)

 

Version 2

Since the 1950s, scientists have been trying to use polymers to produce prosthetic heart valves that have the positive attributes of current commercial and mechanical valves, but without any of their drawbacks. (32 words)

 

The subject matter is the same. The language is equally technical. The sentences are of similar lengths (in fact, both are longer than the maximum length I would recommend for business writing).

Yet most people would say version 2 is far easier to get through. But why? To find out, we need to look closely at the sentence structure of each. Read the rest of this entry »

Empathy mapping: How to get inside your reader’s head

January 20th, 2017

Empathy mapping: cartoon of map with the word 'empathy' written on it

‘Who is my reader?’

It’s the first question any professional writer asks herself – or her client – before she sits down to write. Read the rest of this entry »

How your culture shapes the way you write

October 7th, 2016

cartoon of a world globe and restaurant cloche

We all agree that business writing should be clear, concise and direct, right? As any business writing expert – myself included – will tell you, you need to keep things simple, get straight to the point and ditch the jargon.

But what you may not know – and what many business writing experts also fail to realise – is that this attitude to writing is not universal.

In fact, the idea that you should ‘keep things simple, stupid’ is culturally determined. For many writers whose first language isn’t English, the idea that ‘clarity is king’ is greeted with surprise. Read the rest of this entry »

Writing to deadline: pragmatism vs. perfectionism

May 10th, 2016

cartoon of ticking clock

A student recently asked me a question about writing to deadline:

Hi Clare
I totally get the need to edit, and to take time to hone your writing. However, in my job in communications, there is always more work than time, and deadlines tend to be pretty tight. Articles for our website or FAQ documents need to be turned around quickly, and I think my challenge is rather spending too much time pondering and perfecting, while other tasks pile up. So my question is, how do you strike the right balance between pragmatism and perfectionism?

Vicky

I prompted Vicky’s question by revealing the amount of time I allocate to my writing process. Many people are surprised that I spend only 20% of my time writing but 50% editing. My point is that great writing is more the result of editing than it is the actual writing. I also believe this bias towards editing helps us hit any deadline. Here’s why:

Knowing that the magic happens in the editing stage frees you up to get something – anything – down on that blank page. It’s a question of quickly getting what you need to say written without worrying about how cringeworthy the result is. So, getting comfortable with what one writer I know calls the Ugly First Draft will naturally speed your writing process.

You’ll also get that ugly first draft down quicker if you are clear from the outset who your reader is and what you need to tell them – that’s the research bit. Bearing these questions in mind at the writing and editing stages keeps you focused, thus putting a limit on the amount of pondering and perfecting that needs to be done. It stops you sweating the small stuff in favour of the big wins.

Sometimes, we have to be kind to ourselves, too and let pragmatism reign. Remember ‘perfect is the enemy of done’. The great thing about online writing is you can always go back and rework it. Print copy is a different matter. But no one expects Austen-worthy style and polish anywhere other than, well, an Austen novel. When that deadline is looming, all you have to do is make sure your writing is as good as it can be – by which I mean as useful to the reader as it can be.

Here’s a more detailed look at the writing process.

To help get that first draft down quicker take a look at this quick and easy method to structure your writing.

And here are the essential questions you need to ask before you even start writing.

If you’re worried, or being told, you’re writing too slowly, check out this post on how long writing should take.