Easy-to-use tips from a former writing workshop facilitator
For a year and a half, in a break from my corporate career, I led writing workshops for managers and professionals in large organizations, including Ford Motor Company, Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of Boston, Parker Brothers, and many others.
Friends would often ask me, “Don’t these people know how to write?”
Well, yes, they knew how to write, but their writing was often unclear, uninteresting, and hard for them to produce.
Here are seven nontechnical writing hacks that I picked up in those days (and since) that will improve your writing—by a lot—in a matter of days.
Do you have trouble getting started on a piece? Making time to write? Finding the right words? Writing clearly?
You can make real headway against these problems simply by breaking any writing task longer than a brief email into three steps: plan-draft-edit.
Draft: After you have your ideas or rough outline, write your draft. When you draft, don’t judge the writing. Don’t sweat the grammar. Don’t edit. Just get it down. Then set it aside, for at least an hour, preferably overnight, and longer for long documents.
Edit: After you get some distance on it, edit it. Getting distance enables you to see where you used the wrong word, where things aren’t clear, where things belong—and what doesn’t belong.
This three-step approach helps overcome writer’s block and speeds up any writing task because you’re not trying to do three things at once. Divide. And conquer.
Adjust word and sentence length
Most writers in business use too many words, too many long words, and too many long sentences. They’re often trying to sound formal or smart. Problem is, that stuff sounds dull.
In general, don’t use long words when short words will do. Delete needless modifiers (“appropriate”). Delete one of two redundant nouns (“managers and supervisors”) and verbs (“execute and facilitate”).
Limit maximum sentence length to 30 words or so. You want a mix of long, medium, and short sentences to keep the reader engaged. Shoot for an average sentence length of around 20. Too many long sentences, and they’ll be bored, confused, or both. Too many short ones make writing choppy. And annoying.
Even in this age of Twitter, I still see documents with paragraphs 15 lines long—or longer. Short paragraphs are a must on the screen, but also in hard-copy. I try to limit paragraph length to a maximum of six to eight lines (not sentences, lines). Use white space liberally. Use bullets and lists. Include graphs and charts when possible.
Readers facing huge blocks of text tend not to read the document to begin with, so this is key. You can overuse white space, bullets, and charts, but dense documents still plague readers at too many websites.
Pump up your titles, headlines, and subheads
Inert, noun-based titles and section heads that convey no action, no benefits, and no information about the content do no one any good.
Don’t to go crazy, and don’t insult your reader and destroy your cred with click-bait titles and headers. Just put some thought into them. Make them descriptive. Promise a benefit. Ask a question. Use action words (verbs), as I’ve done with the section heads in this piece.
Give them stats and numbers
Surveys show that 87 percent of business people prefer statistics and numerical support for points made in documents. Actually, I just made up that statistic to show you what I mean. It’s surely borne out on the web.
Yes, it can be a chore to locate supporting statistics, counts, or values, but they are persuasive.
Use metaphors well
This one is tricky, but even shopworn metaphors often work better than none. The go-to metaphors in business writing are sports, war, discovery, and exploration, along with visions, roads, and journeys. These are serviceable, but try to do better.
Collaborating can help. For example, in the early 1990s I wrote a book proposal for a career guide called Lifeboat: Surviving Economic Storms and Waves of Change or whatever. All I remember is Lifeboat. My agent at the time hated the metaphor but loved the book idea, and he gave me great advice:
“Lose the lifeboat, the stormy seas and all that stuff,” he said. “Then, imagine the kind of person who is ideally suited to survive and prosper in this tumultuous environment you describe so well.”
I took his advice and came up with “the multipreneur” and then morphed that into “multipreneuring.” My agent sold the proposal to Simon & Schuster, which published the book under their Fireside imprint.
This is an advanced tip. Coming up with great metaphors takes time, work, and imagination. But when the stakes are high, it’s worth the effort.
Read your writing aloud
This one is easy and extremely powerful. So just do it. When you read your document aloud you will hear the polysyllables pile up. You will run out of breath when your sentences are too long. You will hear the trite, awkward, or obvious things that you need to edit out before you send it out.
Good writing appeals to readers in the way it “sounds” to them. They’ll often say it’s as if the writer is sitting there, talking with them. Reading your writing aloud lets you hear how your writing will sound to your reader’s internal ear. Read your stuff out loud, and edit accordingly.
Read them, and reap
These seven tips will solve most of the most obvious writing problems business writers create for themselves. Use them, and you will automatically see your writing dramatically improve.