Writing for success
No quick fix will transform your writing overnight. But here are ten tips from our Communications expert Chris Mohr, that, if you put into regular practice, will eventually take it to the next level.
- The most important person in the room when you’re writing isn’t you, it’s your reader.Jot down what you know about them—you’ll be surprised how much this will inform your planning. If you’re writing for a diverse audience whom you don’t know, take a tip from Warren Buffet (until recently, the richest man in the world). When writing his company’s annual report to shareholders, he always keeps his sisters in mind—they’re highly intelligent but no experts in finance. So he begins, “Dear Doris and Bertie.”
- The punchiest sentences start with the subject (the ‘who’ or ‘what’) followed closely by the main verb and its object (answering the question, ‘who’ or ‘what?’). David Marsh, author of the delightful For who(m) the bell tolls, illustrates this with pop lyrics: “She loves you,” (the Beatles) is a perfect example of English sentence construction. It’s how Anglo-Saxon cultures think and speak; it’s how they’re wired to process information; and it’s almost the only bit of grammar you need to know. To put it another way, by another guru, "If you begin a sentence well, the end will almost take care of itself.”
- Keep it short. We all struggle trying to read long sentences, so make yours an average length of between 15 and 20 words. That’s not just my advice—every authority on writing, such as the Plain English campaign , will tell you the same thing. They’ll also tell that you that, if you do write a long sentence, you should follow it with a shorter one, to vary the rhythm and give the reader a break.And don’t be afraid of writing a very short sentence (like this one). It will stand out.
- Make your writing lean. Cut out, not just repetitions and tautologies, but also any words and phrases that don't add value—for example, ‘very’, or, “I am writing to inform you that...” (You never need to say that you’re writing.) Unnecessary words just get in the reader's way. Writing in 1946, George Orwell advised, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”Over 70 years later, the indispensable Oxford Guide to Plain English puts it this way: write tight.At the same time, check that your cuts haven’t lost any meaning or compromised the tone.
- The upside-down triangle, aka the inverted pyramid, is a brilliant structure for emails and letters. It works like this: you start with the big news and follow with a less important point, and then with minor ones. (See the Oxford Guide to Plain English for examples of this and other reader-friendly structures.)This structure grabs the reader’s attention from the off, gets things in the right order, and keeps you on track too. That’s because…
- ..according to current cognitive theory, reading is an act of simultaneously processing information and building on existing knowledge. So, the building blocks need to be in the right order. Paragraphs are a good example. Instead of working up to your conclusion, start with it— make it your topic sentence, and then expand on it,. If you gradually build up to your main point you will lose your reader on the way. They’ll be wondering, why are you telling me this, and where are you taking me?
- Signpost where you’re taking your reader, but do it sparingly, says Steven Pinker in The Sense of Style. He suggests several tactics to avoid sounding plodding, such as opening with a question, or addressing the reader directly rather than using passive constructions.But that’s not always going to work, especially in formal documents. So just think creatively: how can I make clear to my reader a) what they’re about to read and b) how I want them to understand it?
- Never underestimate the power of white space—it makes your writing both inviting and digestible. Nobody wants to dive in to a really long piece of text because it looks like such hard work. So try to keep paragraphs to no more than four or five sentences. The white space between them sends a subliminal signal to the reader, who can see at a glance how many ideas are in the text before they even read a single word of it. Without those spaces, who knows if there are two ideas in your passage, or two hundred?
- This one’s a bit of ragbag. But your readers will appreciate it if you
keep things consistent
avoid nominalisation (or zombie nouns)
use parallel structures.
- And lastly (but, actually, first of all), read, read, read—widely and promiscuously—books, fiction or non-fiction, magazines, journals, newspapers, even the backs of cereal packets (only joking). They’re all written by professional communicators, and their expertise will rub off on you.Good writing at work closely resembles good journalism, so read analytically to see how newspaper articles are structured to engage the reader; look at journals such as The Economist or The Harvard Business Review for inspiration for headings and layout; revisit your favourite novelists to find out how they use language.
Do all these things regularly and you’ll soon be writing stuff you’re proud of. That’s a promise. Alternatively, come and learn all the tips and tricks you will need on our Write for success course