Whether you’re writing an email, a letter to a friend, a trade article or a novel, there are basic rules to observe which will help your message get read, be understood and accepted.
1. Never be boring
Your reader will forgive almost anything except you boring them. Your reader doesn’t have to agree with you, but he or she should at least be intrigued. Make the reader care. Don’t be afraid to be edgy. Look at every sentence and ask yourself, “Why will the reader care about this?”
2. Write in short sentences
The reader shouldn’t have to work hard to understand what you’re saying. If he or she has to go back over a sentence because of poor structure it’s not his or her fault, it’s yours. Read aloud what you’ve written or have someone else read it aloud. This helps you find sentences that are too long or convoluted.
3. Write to the reader
Use “you” often. Look for ways to eliminate or reduce “I” and “me.” Present tense, second person is always best. To readers it feels more like you’re talking to them.
4. Write in active voice
Use active verbs as much as possible. They’re more engaging. They move the reader along and take fewer words to get your message across. “John loves Mary” is much more powerful than “Mary is loved by John.”
5. Keep it simple
The front page of The Wall Street Journal and all of USA Today is written for the eighth grade (age 13) reading level. Editors do this for a good reason. People aren’t interested in words and concepts they don’t understand. So make your points quickly and succinctly. Make your words work and use as few of them as are necessary to convey the idea. Use the right word, not to show off your vocabulary (or your new thesaurus), but to convey your message accurately.
6. Tell stories
Facts tell and stories sell. The best writers and speakers of the world have always been good storytellers. Your own stories are the best. What you are sharing is wisdom from your point of view and stories illustrate this better than anything else.
7. Know your subject
Write about things on which you’ve earned the right to write. The more you know, the more confidence and credibility you’ll have.
This is the radio station everyone listens to. The call letters stand for “What’s In It For Me”. People want to know what they’ll get out of what you’re writing, so give them what they want.
9. Paint mental pictures
We think in pictures and we should write in ways that re-create these pictures in the minds of our readers. Be descriptive. Use examples. Describe the unfamiliar by using some of the familiar. For example: ‘Jennifer’s first day at her new job reminded her of the freshness and unfamiliarity she experienced on her first day of school.’
10. Write as you talk
Often we see people who are good talkers trying to put on a different air in their writing. It doesn’t work. It’s much better to be conversational.
11. Sleep on it
It’s a rare individual who can sit down and write something well at the first attempt. Any writing of importance should be written and then reviewed later, preferably next day. Some things should be edited several times over an extended period to properly convey a clear message.
12. Write and read extensively
This advice is from Stephen King, a prolific writer. “If you want to be a good writer you have to do two things – read a lot and write a lot.” He’s right.
13. Break it down
Where appropriate, use bullet points.
- Use them for summaries or outlines.
- Think about someone who may start out by only scanning your text.
- Let bullet points draw the reader in.
14. Keep paragraphs short – less than six lines
Short paragraphs provide white space to the text. They break up the page and make it appear less formidable to the reader’s eye. As in music, the space between the notes is as important as the notes themselves.
15. Don’t use Capital Letters to make a weak point look stronger
Capital letters are harder to read than upper and lower case. They also can be perceived as SHOUTING! A little uppercase usage is OK but regular use of words with every letter shown as a capital doesn’t work and it looks amateurish.
Writing should be a happy and rewarding experience. If you follow these tips, you will find it easier to convey your written communications to others. They will find it easier to understand the points you are making.
Abridged from article by Michael Angier. Reproduced for educational purposes.
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