Many years working as an editor and writer have taught me one thing: Anyone can write but not everyone can write well.
This doesn’t mean writing technique can’t be improved. Writing is like exercise: the more you practice the better you become. Of course not everyone will be the next Tolstoy, Hemingway or Margaret Atwood, no matter how much they practice, but with time anyone can easily become a better than average writer.
Great writing is not simply about how many words you can string together. It is all about how well you put those words together and, in many cases, how many words you don’t have to say to get your message across.
There are countless ways to improve your technique but here I list just ten things that, if done regularly, could make all the difference to your writing. It doesn’t matter if you’re a journalist, blogger or PR writer, practice makes for better writing.
1 – Plan
Unless you’re writing a personal journal don’t just start writing. You don’t have to have an entire storyboard planned out before hitting your keyboard but you do need to know what you plan to say. Why are you writing this article? What point are you trying to make? Without knowing where you are going with your article you’re not only likely to wander off course but you’re also going to waste time as you write and rewrite it as you think of new things to say.
2 – Know your audience
Who are you writing for? Are you talking to experts in their field or consumers with no prior knowledge of a product? If you’re writing for business partners it’s safe to assume they have some inside information and understand industry jargon. If you’re writing for the mass market it’s safer to assume no prior knowledge and explain everything clearly.
3 – Answer all the questions
Don’t assume readers have inside knowledge. Does your article answer the who, why, where, how, what questions? Not all articles will have all of these elements but if they do then make absolutely sure that they are answered. In the era of the Internet, for example, your article may be read by readers around the world. Do they know where such-and-such a street is, or do they know who person X is? Never, ever leave a reader with a question (something our local newspaper is expert at), it just frustrates them. Ask yourself: “What would I want to know if I was reading this?”
4 – Watch the jargon
Avoid all jargon unless it is impossible to do so. Jargon may be understood by part of your audience but it can just as easily alienate readers unfamiliar with the terms. Never assume that readers understand acronyms or industry-specific terms, no matter how commonplace they are. The extra couple of words required to explain the issue will pay off by removing any cause for doubt.
3 – Write for readers
Writing is about communicating with readers. Long words and clever metaphors might make you feel pleased with yourself but how do they help the reader? All the cleverness and insight in the world is worthless if the reader is bored, confused or uncertain of what you are saying.
5 – Short paragraphs
The best writing is short and concise. Keep your paragraphs short and packed with information. Each paragraph should ideally contain just a single point. This may be done in one sentence or five sentences, but resist the urge to over-explain or cover too much in each paragraph. Short paragraphs make it easier for the mind to absorb information because they are manageable chunks.
6 – Short sentences
Short sentences are equally important. Never write a three line sentence when a single-line one will do. For the same reason as short paragraphs make reading easier, short sentences make it easier to follow the argument. Each sentence should have a single point.
7 – Simplify
Never use a long word (or jargon) when a shorter word or phrase will do. Never write acquire when buy will do. Never write utilise when use says the same thing. Long words make for harder reading and may confuse readers.
8 – Be specific about details
Always be specific about what you are saying: “Most people think this candidate is the best” is not as strong as “90 percent of people think this candidate is the best”. Avoid generalisations such as “this new product is 33 percent faster” without saying what it is faster than. “The phone is available in various colours” is not as effective as saying “the phone is available with a black, white or silver case”.
9 – Write as you speak
You probably don’t speak to your friends with words such as problematize or end-to-end solution, so why write like that? Long, academic words may sound clever but they can be ambiguous and confusing to readers. If you write the way you speak chances are that you will be better understood. This doesn’t mean that you should pepper your writing with slang but avoid being overly formal.
10 – Avoid unnecessary words
Good writing is free of excess words. Mark Twain once famously wrote: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” When you’ve finished writing read your work through and remove unnecessary words. Even if you have to rework it sightly to accommodate these changes it will undoubtedly make your writing clearer.
10 – Revise and rewrite
Re-read your writing. It’s obvious but often overlooked in the rush to publish. Look for words that are unnecessary, long sentences that can be broken up and paragraphs that can be simplified. Ask yourself: are their any questions left unanswered? Is it clear what I am saying, where or what this is about and who is involved? Better still, have someone else read your writing and ask them if it is clear.