Archive for the ‘How to be a writer’ Category

The sobering truth about how your “readers” really see you

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

Cartoon about engaging readers

At the Professional Copywriter’s Network Conference, leading direct mail writer Andy Maslen revealed he’d never written a piece of direct mail in his life.

Nope, he was proud to say he wrote junk mail for a living.

Why would an expert in his field describe his work in such derogatory terms?

Doesn’t exactly sound impressive on your CV, does it? Not really something to include in your elevator pitch, perhaps. (more…)

36 tips for lean writing

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

I recently met with a client at a large firm that’s trying to introduce “lean” working processes across the organisation. His team of writers were producing distinctly unlean documents, which is why he needed help.

“Lean” processes were first developed in Japanese manufacturing firms in the 1940s and the concept has spread to other businesses. The idea is that you don’t waste resources on anything that doesn’t “add value” to the end customer. It’s about achieving more with less.

We’re not massively keen on those MBA-ishly jargony words “adding value”, but we do think there’s something in this idea of lean production. Here’s how we think lean principles apply to writing. (more…)

Three free tools for better business writing

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Wouldn’t it be great to get professional feedback on every document you write? If getting a second pair of eyes on your business writing isn’t possible, the next best thing is to run your work through an online readability tool.

Here, we review three free tools that can help you sharpen up your business writing skills. All of them give you a visual snapshot of how readable a piece of writing is. (more…)

Lessons in powerful writing (from a lawyer, of all people!)

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Previously, we’ve ranted about bad business writing that sounds like it was drafted by the guys in Compliance. But not all legal types write with desiccated dullness.

Lord Denning, one of the most celebrated judges of the twentieth century, was renowned for his way with words. If you’ve ever studied Law, you’ll know Denning is always fun to read – and not just because of his frequent disregard for precedent. (more…)

Five Churchillian tips for writing like a leader

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

We’ve talked before about Winston Churchill’s gift for language. Here’s a great example of an inspiring speech written to get the country behind their leader: (more…)

Five essential questions to ask before you even start writing

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

“That writer does the most who gives his reader the most knowledge, and takes from him the least time” (C. C. Colton, quoted on the wonderfully succinct Managing Your Writing blog).

Want to give your reader the most knowledge, while taking away the least time? Then ask yourself these five questions before you even put finger to keyboard. (more…)

25 quick business writing tips (and a link to 100 more)

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

1. For writing that’s easy to read, make friends with the full stop.

2. Be concrete, not abstract. Call a hose a hose, not a fluid transfer solution.

3. “However”: if in doubt, punctuate with full stop, cap, comma. However, there are exceptions.

4. Capitalising job titles? One writer I know was taught to save caps for “God, the Queen and the Editor”.

5. It may look odd, but there’s only one apostrophe in the phrase “Dos and Don’ts”.

6. “While” sounds less pretentious than “whilst”.

7. You don’t need a hyphen with adverbs ending in “ly”: a “happily married couple”.

8. Ditch the corporate throat clearing: go back and see if you can cut your first paragraph.

9. “The data are” or “the data is”? Just choose whatever you think your reader would prefer.

10. Yes, you can split an infinitive. Trust your ears, not rules invented by 18th-century grammarians.

11. Both “under” and “way” are in the dictionary. “Underway”, however, is not.

12. “Don’t” is friendlier than “do not”, though non-native speakers may prefer it spelt out.

13. Remember: “e.g.” = “for example”; “i.e.” = “that is”. They aren’t interchangeable.

14. Don’t overuse “scare quotes” – they make you look like you lack “conviction”. See?

15. The past tense of “lead” is “led”, not “lead”.

16. To quote Hemmingway, “every first draft is s**t”. Always go back and edit.

17. Be active, not passive: “we will send you the document”, not “the document will be sent to you

18. Watch out: “loose” rhymes with “goose”, “lose” rhymes with “choose”.

19. As Mervin Block says, if it’s not necessary to leave a word in, it’s necessary to leave it out.

20. Remember the three “Cs” of great business writing: it’s clear, concise and conversational.

21. Use “comprises of” to sound like an illiterate estate agent. Otherwise, just “comprises”.

22. Never use the jargon “revert” for “reply” – especially if you work with non-native speakers.

23. If your wife compares you “to” George Clooney, be flattered. If she compares you “with” him, be worried.

24. Hyphens aren’t optional. Consider the difference between “extra-marital sex” and “extra marital sex”.

25. Look! No apostrophe: 1980s, 1990s, 2000s etc.

100 more quick writing tips

Write with a knife for more powerful prose

Monday, January 16th, 2012

Finally happy with that document you’ve been working on all morning?

Great. Now go back and cut 20%.

That’s right. Shear it of a fifth before you press “send”. I guarantee the end result will be better than what you have now.

Not sure where to start? Here are some hints on what to discard. (more…)

Six ways your schoolteachers sabotaged your business writing

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

1. They got you used to a captive audience
At school, you handed in your homework and it came back marked. This process taught you that every word you wrote would be read and evaluated by someone deeply interested in your thoughts.

Things couldn’t be more different in business. Your colleagues and clients are busy people with a hundred different demands on their time. And unlike your teachers they aren’t paid to read your stuff.

The lesson: In business, unlike at school, you have to fight to be read. Accept that most people will scan your words. Make it easy on them by using headers, bullets and short paragraphs.

2. They taught you to write with a beginning, a middle and an end

At school you learned that any essay must have an introduction and a conclusion. The meat of your argument came in the middle.

Judging by the number of business documents we’ve seen that begin by setting the scene, explaining the context and generally “warming the reader up”, this is a hard habit to shake.

But in business, you don’t have the luxury of the preamble. Your readers are time-pressed, so you need to dive straight in with your main point.

The lesson: Before writing that email, memo, web page or report ask yourself “what do I want my reader to do as a result of my words?”. The answer gives you your first line.

3. They taught you to pad, not prune
At school, you were told to expand on your answers. And while this trained you to think more deeply about questions, it also taught you to value padding over pruning – as editor Bill Harper has also argued.

Alas in business, sometimes people really do just want a “yes” or “no” answer. Filling pages for the sake of it is more likely to exasperate than impress your reader.

The lesson: Prune, prune and prune again! Once you’ve reached the point where you’re happy with your work, go back and cut 20%.

4. They rewarded you for using fancy words
When you were introduced to a new word at school, your teachers no doubt asked you to use it in a sentence to prove you understood it properly.

This task was essential because it increased your vocabulary. But it also subtly rewarded you for using words that were new and strange and only just within your grasp.

Pretentious words, nasty neologisms and impenetrable corporate jargon are your adult equivalent.

But such words are letting you down. In business, your goal is to be clear and persuasive, not to impress some authority figure.

The lesson: If there’s a choice between a short word and a long word, go for the short one. For example, say “start”, not “commence”, “after”, not “subsequently” and “change”, not “adjustment”.

And never use a word you wouldn’t use outside the office – do you “align”, “integrate” or “leverage” things at home?

5. They made you distance yourself from your words
At school, we were taught that overt references to the reader (as “you”) or the writer (“I”) were a no-no. In academic or scientific writing this approach made you sound more persuasive because you appeared objective.

For example, in the chemistry lab you were taught to use a passive form, such as “the sodium chloride was added to the test tube” rather than the active form “I added the sodium chloride to the test tube”.

Or in a literature essay, you’d win points for a formal expression like: “Hamlet’s fatal flaw might be considered to be procrastination”. You’d probably lose marks for the more familiar: “You could say Hamlet’s fatal flaw was procrastination”.

Alas, the reverse is true in business writing. In business, address your reader as “you” and she feels a connection with you. Refer to yourself as “I”, and you sound accountable.

Compare: “It is regrettable that mistakes were made in the dispatch of the order” with “I’m sorry your order didn’t arrive on time”. Which would you rather hear?

The lesson: Learn to spot passive verb forms and rework them so they’re active. Address your reader as “you”. This article, for example, contains over 70 references to “you” or “your” – that’s nearly 10% of the whole text. Does it sound any less authoritative for its friendly approach?

6. They taught you outdated rules about grammar

You can’t blame your teachers for instilling in you the rules that apply to academic prose. And if you went on to university, such rules probably fared you well.

But as any writer will tell you, in business writing it’s perfectly OK to start a sentence with “and” or “but”. In fact, doing so can make your sentences shorter – and your writing easier to read.

Similarly, contractions aren’t a problem if you’re after a conversational style.

And if a split infinitive just sounds better to the ear, feel free to boldly go there.

The lesson: Break the rules if the result sounds better and is easier to read. Develop a writer’s ear by reading your work aloud.

Another 25 quick business writing tips

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Follow us on Twitter for regular business writing tips.

1. Take a tip from Elmore Leonard: leave out the parts that people skip.

2. Use “people”, not “persons” (unless you really do want to sound like you’re arresting said “persons”).

3. Avoid tracked changes. They make work hard to proof and they’re terrible for working relationships.

4. Accept that your readers will scan. Make it easy for them with headers and paragraph returns.

5. It’s either “just as” or “equally” – never the horrible hybrid “equally as”.

6. The word “currently” is often redundant, as here: “We are currently updating our website”.

7. There’s no need for the jargon “best of breed” – “best” is enough.

8. “Imply” and “infer” mean different things: if you imply something, I might infer it.

9. “Momentarily” means “for a moment”, not “in a moment”.

10. When researching a piece, pick up the phone. You’re guaranteed to get better results than by emailing.

11. Drop the overused adjective “key” – it invariably attracts other jargon (“stakeholders”, “learnings”).

12. If you must use PowerPoint, stick to 4 or 5 bullets a slide (and 4 or 5 words to a bullet).

13. Save “takeaway” for that kebab you had on the way home last night. “Point” or “lesson” are better.

14. Remember to use an apostrophe in phrases like “one week’s notice” and “ten years’ experience”.

15. Taking minutes? Record important points, decisions and “to dos”, not “he said then she said” etc.

16. Numerals: spell out “one” to “ten”. Use figures for “11” or more.

17. Write your headline first – it will help crystallise your main point.

18. Need feedback on your writing? The more senior they are, the less they’ll rewrite for the sake of it.

19. “Now” is more powerful than wordy alternatives like “at this moment in time”.

20. Don’t call attention to the act of writing. “I hereby inform you of our new address” = “We’re moving”.

21. Far better to start a sentence with “and” than to ever use the word “additionally”.

22. Never choose a long word when a short one will do.

23. For good working relationships, get or give feedback on writing by phone or in person, not email.

24. Proofreading? Check headers, footers, captions etc both separately and as part of the whole.

25. Watch your tone: never say something in an email in a way you wouldn’t say it to their face.

See also:

More super-quick tips for better business writing

Another 25 super-speedy tips for better business writing

25 super-quick tips for better business writing