There are plenty of folks happy to tell you how to write better, just as any doctor will tell you to “eat right and exercise.” But changing your writing (or eating) habits only happens when you understand why you do what you do. I can help you with that.
That proposal or email you wrote must now compete for attention with Facebook and the Huffington Post. Here’s how to compete more effectively, and why you’re not doing it already. (The wall chart for these is at the bottom of the post.)
1 Write shorter.
Why it matters. Readers are impatient and will give up on your blog post, email, or document before you’ve made your point. Every extra word makes readers antsy.
Why you write long. It’s far easier to type than to edit. So people just keep adding things.
How to fix it. Edit. Delete your “warming up” text and start with the main point. Cull extraneous detail and repetition. Work as if each word you eventually publish or send will cost you $10. I’ve often had writers who were outraged that I had redlined two-thirds of what they wrote . . . only to read the shortened doc and respond “that’s so much more powerful.”
2 Shorten your sentences.
Why it matters. Long sentences make readers work too hard to figure out your meaning.
Why your sentences are too long. New ideas keep occurring to you as you write each sentence. And you think long sentences make you sound sophisticated.
How to fix it. Break sentences down into bite-size ideas. Then delete what you don’t need. Think Hemingway, not Dickens.
Why it matters. Passive voice sentences conceal who is acting and create uneasiness.
Why you write passive. Your writing teachers have trained you to write this way. Also, if you are insecure about what you’re saying, you hide it behind passive wording.
How to fix it. Figure out who the actor in the sentence is and make it the subject. For example this Fortune article says that “New ingredients are steadily being added to the job-matching mix.” Rewrite as “Startup companies keep adding new job-matching techniques.”
4 Eliminate weasel words.
Why it matters. Words like “generally” and “most” make your writing sound weak and equivocal.
Why you use weasel words. You’re afraid of making a bold statement; these words give you an out. When you don’t say anything, you can’t be wrong.
How to fix it. Delete the weasel words, then read the resulting statement. If it’s too bold, write the strongest, clearest statement you can to take its place. (If no bold statement applies, you have nothing to say, so delete the sentence.) For example, this Wall Street Journal native ad piece includes the sentence “Most companies with traditional business models probably have a few radical developers on staff.” Rewrite as “Every company has a radical developer or two.”
5 Replace jargon with clarity.
Why it matters. Jargon makes your reader feel stupid. Unless they’re an insider, they can’t figure out your meaning.
Why you use jargon. You think jargon makes you sound sophisticated. Or you’re hiding the fact that you don’t actually understand what you’re saying.
How to fix it. Imagine you’re talking to your mom (unless your mom is an expert in your subject; if so, imagine you’re talking to your high school history teacher). Explain what you mean in plain English. If using a technical term would actually make things clearer or shorter, define it first. For example, this SAP press release includes the sentence “As the digital transformation revolution reaches maturity, companies have the opportunity to shift business models within their industry disruptively to create new sources of defensible competitive advantage.” Rewrite as “New technology creates new ways to do business.”
6 Cite numbers effectively.
Why it matters. Used properly, statistics can back up your point.
Why you use numbers the wrong way. You think a number — any number — adds credibility. But they’re so easy to misuse.
How to fix it. When citing a statistic, include the context (compared to what?). And statistics shorn of sources are meaningless; “It is estimated that” might as well say “I made this number up.” Here’s a proper way to use a statistic: “Forrester Research estimates that by 2017, 2.4 billion people will own smartphones, or around one third of the world’s population.”
7 Use “I,” “we,” and “you.”
Why it matters. Taken together, these pronouns create a relationship between the writer (“I”), his organization (“we”), and the reader (“you.”)
Why you don’t use these pronouns. It’s scary to talk directly to reader. It sounds informal.
How to fix it. Imagine the reader. Then rewrite using the word “you.” For example, rewrite the Fenway Park rule “No bag or item larger than 16″x16″x8″ will be permitted inside the Park,” as “Security staff won’t let you in the park if your bag is too big.”
8 Move key insights up.
Why it matters. You only have a few sentences to get the reader’s attention. If you boldly state your key point at or near the top, they’ll stick around to see if you can prove it.
Why your insights are buried. We were all taught to write deductively: first this, then that, then this, therefore conclusion. Also, you’re afraid of scaring people away with a bold opening statement.
How to fix it. Force yourself to start with a bold statement. If you just can’t get in this habit, write whatever you need to warm up to stating your thesis, then delete the warmup. Once you’ve finished the piece and realize what you really meant to say, rewrite the bold statement. Each time you rewrite, rewrite the opener.
9 Cite examples.
Why it matters. Text without examples is dull and not credible. Text with examples comes alive.
Why you lack examples. Examples come from research, which is work. They make you pause and think as you’re writing, which slows you down.
How to fix it. For a piece of any length, plan to spend half the writing time doing research first. If you can’t get an actual example, use a hypothetical. If possible, cite a person who did something, not just a company.
10 Give us some signposts.
Why it matters. If you’re writing anything longer than a page, people want to know what they’re in for.
Why you lack signposts. You’re afraid of sounding pedantic. Worse yet, if your writing isn’t well-organized, then you can’t explain the structure.
How to fix it. After you’ve stated your main thesis, write this: “Here’s how I’ll explain this.” Then include a few short sentences or a numbered list. It’s that easy!
Need more help than this?
I’m here for you:
- Workshops: I can teach clear writing to your department or company.
- Help with books: book proposals and editing.
- Editing: I can help clarify your ideas and how you express them — and make you a smarter writer.
Or take a shortcut: just buy Writing Without Bullshit, the book these tips come from.
For more insights like this, follow me on twitter, read the posts below, or scroll down to sign up for daily writing tips with extra snark.
- 10 tips on how to write shorter
- 11 key planning tips and the psychology behind them
- 5 ways that powerful writing helps your career
- How to write boldly when you are afraid
- The 4 questions to ask before you write anything
- The Iron Imperative: Your reader’s time is more valuable than yours
- Can academics embrace my writing tips?
- Where bullshit comes from: an analysis
- Dealing with management bullshit: a parable
- Resisting groupthink: a parable
- What it felt like when this post got 200,000 views
- How I can help you create powerful messages.
Here’s a wall chart for you. Print it out and hang it by the place where you write. Thanks to Jeremiah Owyang for suggesting this post.