Writing is becoming a lost art. Between the unique style created by the explosion of social media and the old school belief that “more is better” lies a style that’s simple, clear, and effective. Getting there takes a bit of thought, but everyone can improve the effectiveness of their written words, and these tips will help you find the right path.
Too often we write chronologically or start with background information. In most cases, however, you’re better of hitting your key message quickly.
Old school: “XYZ Company has a long history of valuing our customers and employees. XYZ was formed in 1952 with three staff and has grown steadily to over 500. Unfortunately, the economic uncertainty and shifting customer preferences are forcing us to close our doors.”
Better: “After 60 years of producing high-quality widgets, economic conditions and changing customer tastes are forcing the company to close its doors. President Judi Smith says the organization considered every option, including …”
If your message will be read on a computer or handheld device, the reader is more likely to skim the copy. In addition to the tip above, this means you should break up your copy with bullets and sub headlines. Studies show that these catch the eyes’ attention.
Old School: Tuesday’s lecture will address a variety of First Aid topics, including treating open wounds, splinting broken bones, aiding a choking victim, responding to a potential poisoning, and performing CPR.
First Aid topics included in the lecture:
- Treating open wounds
- Splinting broken bones
- Aiding a choking victim
- Responding to a potential poisoning
- Performing CPR
Drop a few
Picture a bucket of golf balls. Three are orange; the rest are white. The more white golf balls in the bucket, the more effort required to find an orange one. It’s the same with words. Give a reader too many, and you’re increasing the odds they’ll miss the key points of your message — or simply will give up. Focus on what’s really important.
Adopt a style
In addition to a dictionary — online or paper — your toolbox should include a style guide, such as the AP Stylebook. These easy-to-use guides give you tons of useful information, from abbreviations to the correct spelling of ZIP code.
Early in my career, a senior PR person and I were charged with drafting a sensitive message from our CEO. I was hemming and hawing about the lead when he shook his head and said “Just start writing.” He was thinking big picture and was stuck on the first sentence. While this seems almost counter intuitive, he was right. If I’m struggling to find the right opening, I’ll start with the second paragraph.
Speaking of lead sentences, a neat trick to beat writer’s block is to imagine telling the story to a spouse, friend, etc.
For example, a writer for a company newsletter might pen the following: “Ronald Hood, president and CEO of ABC Corporation, visited with employees in the company’s Portland plant and announced a 5 percent bonus will be paid to staff…”
But you’d more likely tell your spouse: “Guess what? I’m getting a 5 percent bonus….Yeah, Mr. Hood told us today…”
So, perhaps a better lead would be: “Thanks to another record-breaking year, ABC employees will receive a 5 percent bonus, company President and CEO Ronald Hood announced today…”
Times are changing, and a shift in writing styles can be seen in magazines from People to Money. Open one and you’ll see short, crisp copy, with lots of photos and graphic, and fewer long stories. These publications’ editors recognize that readers are stressed for time, distracted by countless other messages, and searching for bite-size information. Your readers likely feel the same.