Thursday 18 June 2009

Seven easy ways to improve your writing

Everyone needs to be able to write well.

It will help in every area of your life, professionally and personally. It will help you to recognise good writing in your own advertising and marketing communications. And spot bad writing which is harming your brand, proposition and offer.

It will help you to communicate more effectively with your colleagues, business partners and outside suppliers. Use these guidelines and you’ll be able to write better creative briefs, internal documents, proposals, complaint letters, even love letters to your partner.

The ability to write well is vitally important for all of us. After all, if you can’t say what you mean, how can you mean what you say?
These seven tips can be applied to any kind of writing. They will give you a set of guidelines you can refer to, whether you’re sitting down to write a marketing strategy. Or reading through ad, brochure or website copy that’s been presented to you by your agency. Or writing a letter of complaint or a note to someone you love (which could be the same thing).

1. Never, ever try to be clever

Don’t forget that you are communicating your thoughts and feelings, your views and opinions as simply and clearly as possible. You are not trying to show everyone how clever you are.

If you come up with a word or phrase that you are particularly proud of, cut it out immediately. As author William Faulkner used to say, ‘Kill your darlings.’

And Samuel Johnson had similar advice, “Read over your compositions and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

Any piece of writing should make the reader think, ‘Great, I want that product now,’ or ‘That strategy is spot on – let’s do it’, or ‘That’s a cracking brief’ or even, ‘Take me to bed now’.

Not, ‘Wow, that’s really clever.’

2. Read it out loud
It’s easy to see if any piece of writing is readable. Just read it out loud to yourself. You’ll see if it flows nicely and leads smoothly from one point to the next. You’ll also quickly discover any passages which hold up the flow and need cutting or rewriting.

When you read it out, it should sound like someone talking. Friendly, relaxed and with a logical argument or pitch that draws you in.

Reading your writing out loud will also help you with punctuation. You’ll soon see where it needs a pause in the form of a comma. Or where you need a bigger pause – a full stop. Or where a new thought comes in – a new paragraph.

And remember, a piece of advertising copy shouldn’t sound like advertising copy. If it does, rewrite it. Take out the words and phrases that are advertising cliches. Use quirky and original words. Find new ways to say the same thing.

3. Give us a KISS
It’s a much-used mnemonic, but one of my favourites: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Use short, simple words, not long, complicated ones. Use short sentences. Did you know that the easiest to read sentence is eight words long? While sentences of more than 32 words are very difficult for most people to take in.

Use short paragraphs with only one thought per paragraph. In particular, try to ensure that the first paragraph is no longer than one sentence.

While we’re talking about simplicity, lots of writers think that if they’re writing about complicated subjects, they have to use complicated language.

Not so. The Wall Street Journal is written in a language that’s understandable to a 17-year old. But not the front cover. That’s meant to be understood by a 15-year old.

As Aristotle always used to say, “Style to be good must be clear. Clearness is secured by using words that are current and ordinary.”

More recently, Winston Churchill, who knew a thing or two about communicating with a mass audience, said, "Use simple words everyone knows, then everyone will understand."

4. Mind your language
OK. So what are these simple words? In almost every type of writing, you should use words that ordinary people use every day. Sit on the bus or tube and listen to people talking. Hear the kind of words that they use.

You should then apply a test to everything you hear, read, see – or most important of all, write. Would the man or woman in the street use this word or phrase?

People don’t undertake things. They carry them out. Or better still, do them.

People don’t access services. They use them.

People don’t acquire a loaf of bread. They get one or buy one.

People don’t participate. They take part.

Which leads nicely onto jargon and technical terms.

I received this email recently which began:

Hi Jamie,

Have you ever wished you had email marketing capabilities that extended beyond the ‘out-of-the-box’ functionality of your current in-house application or marketing technology provider?

I think they mean, ‘Have you ever wished your email marketing package let you do more?’

Jargon like, ‘out-of-the-box functionality’ should be avoided like the plague. The writer assumes that I know what this means. I don’t. Explain it in simple English. It should be something like ‘standard features’.

Technical terms are slightly different. Of course, you will sometimes be writing to an audience that uses technical language all the time. In this case, you can use the terms they are familiar with – as long as you understand what they mean, don’t just throw them in!

But to a general audience, assume that they don’t know what any of these technical terms mean. Put them all in plain English.

5. Don’t use that tone of voice with me

Which leads me onto tone of voice. When it’s right, you don’t notice it and you take in the message. When it’s wrong, it’s irritating and you feel either talked down to, or up to which is just as bad.

By and large, the ‘default’ setting for anything you write should be clear and simple, warm and friendly, easy and conversational. Remember, even if you are writing an advertising message for thousands of people, you are writing to them individually. There are just two people involved – you and the reader.

From your ‘default’ style of writing you can then adopt different tones of voice. The one you choose will depend on who you are writing as, and who you are writing to.

For instance, if you’re the chairman communicating with employees, you should come across as a slightly formal but warm and friendly adviser. If you’re writing to another chairman, write as an equal. If you’re selling a financial product or service to a C2DE market, you need to act as a guide, being helpful but not patronising. Make your style even simpler. Think of ‘The Sun.’ If you’re writing to doctors, keep it short, to the point and benefit-driven. They won’t have the time to appreciate your conversational flourishes. .

Above all, always try to write in the language of the person you’re writing to. The language they themselves will use every day.

6. Your most powerful word

So what’s the most powerful word in any kind of writing? Suppose you’re inspiring your colleagues, selling a product online, writing a DM pack or wooing a lover – what’s the one word they want to hear more than any other?

Free is good.

So are Save and Save money.

Even New will attract attention.

But the best word you can use is You. Along with Yours and Your.

You are what you are most interested in. You want to hear about good news for you. About products that give benefits to you. About services that make your life easier. About lovely things that can be yours. About a new company incentive scheme that’s going to give you more money.

(As an example, take that email I mentioned earlier asking about my email marketing capabilities. I rewrote it to read, ‘Have you ever wished your email marketing package let you do more?’)

You certainly don’t want to hear about the company that’s trying to sell to you or make you work harder. You switch off as soon as you read, we this and we that, and our philosophy and our mission and our core values.

It’s just like life. Isn’t it boring listening to someone who alway talks about themselves?

And you’d never get very far trying to win someone’s heart if you’re always writing about me, me, me instead of you, you, you.

So, in anything you write or read through, particularly advertising and selling copy, make sure there are more you’s than we’s.

It will be more interesting, more readable and people are more likely to act on what you’ve written.

7. Give it to me
If you haven’t got time to do any of this, or the people you normally use to do your writing are busy, give me call on 07966 197 706. Or email

I’ll do all of the above and much more to make sure that you get the results you want from whatever you want writiing.

Thank you.

For more invaluable help and advice on writing, marketing and advertising, go to

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