By Meghan Bardwell, Marketing Consultant, Heinz Marketing, Inc.
I hate writing. It’s tough. It makes me want to smash vases against the wall. Even when I get to the level of ‘good,’ I can always get better. There’s always something to refine.
As vehemently as I hate writing, I also love it. It helps me make sense of my jumbled thoughts. It shows me how to connect with people. It’s cathartic. Even when I get to the level of ‘good,’ I always have something more to learn.
Despite the love-hate battle (or maybe because of it), I’ve learned a few things about writing better. Writing for business and marketing doesn’t mean anyone has free reign to be boring or stodgy. Instead, it challenges you to write clearly, directly, and creatively. Here are a few things to keep in mind when writing an email or the great American novel:
Read more. Just do it!
I know you’ve probably already heard this advice. It’s incredibly important, though. Reading as many books and stories and articles as you can is one of the best ways to improve your writing skills.
Don’t limit yourself to just business books and articles; narrowing your reading scope is the last thing you want to do. Try new genres like science fiction and historical non-fiction to force your brain to engage in different ways—challenging the typical way you view and write about the world.
‘Artistic’ forms of writing like poetry can be intimidating; I know that firsthand. I loved fiction books and devoured them growing up. But because I was intimidated by poetry’s limited words and unusual line structure, I didn’t spend much time reading it until I hit college.
When I gave it a chance, I could see the use of words (or lack of words) in a whole new way, which helped my college paper-writing immensely. What you don’t say can have even greater impact than what you do say. Poetry also taught me that it’s ok to play with words, even make some up (see E. E. Cummings and Lewis Carroll for examples), and have fun with sentence structure. Once you know the rules of grammar, it’s time to break them wittingly.
Stop using jargon and buzzwords. PLEASE.
Imagine wearing a huge hat and lots of bling. Shiny, sparkly, blinding bling. That’s what using buzzwords looks like. Buzzwords distract and hide what’s underneath. Throwing in big, smart words doesn’t usually make your writing look intelligent or unique. There’s no need to dress your thoughts up with bling; if your writing is clear and has depth, people will enjoy it for what it is, not for what it’s trying to be.
David Ogilvy, a well-known advertising executive, shared some fabulous advice with his employees: “Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.”
I know my writing sometimes shows the signs of being a pretentious ass. It’s something that slips in every now and then. But the more I’m on alert, the more I catch those pesky words and replace them with something clearer.
Phrases to avoid at all costs include ‘in my opinion.’ We get it. Your audience is smart—we understand that whatever you say is your opinion because you’re the one writing it. And if it’s not your opinion, then you’ll properly reference it.
To sum it up, just say what you want to say. Seriously. No fluff, no extra ornamental phrases to sound smarter. Your audience will thank you for it.
Stay away from long-winded and comma-riddled sentences.
In daily conversations, how often do you keep talking until you’re out of breath? (Hopefully never, because that would be awkward for your listener…) A person’s typical goal is to keep spoken sentences short and to the point so other people easily understand what he or she wants. It should be exactly the same for written sentences.
When I read a really long sentence, I always imagine the writer running out of breath as he or she writes it. My lungs start to ache in sympathy. Descriptive phrases can be fun in the right place and time, but only in moderation.
Find ways to be precise and direct in your writing. If you hate caramel apples, just say, “I despise caramel apples.” Don’t apologize. Don’t pack pacifying phrases around your statement to avoid offending someone or soften the blow. People appreciate polite bluntness much more than you’d think. And as a disclaimer, being direct or blunt isn’t the same as being rude.
P.S. I’m often guilty of using lots of long sentences in my writing (there are probably even some sprinkled throughout this post). It takes practice!
Think in pictures. Write visually.
I adore word-sensory experiences: Brisk air, fiery leaves. Crunch, smash, sprint, gulp.
Strong, active verbs add tons of interest to writing without bogging it down. With just one word, my brain starts creating a picture. The stronger the words, the stronger the brain-picture—which means I’ll have a better chance of understanding whatever concept the writer is trying to convey.
When you’re writing, try to think in terms of action. What happened? What action do you want your reader to take? Why do you want them to care?
What do you love or hate about writing? Any tips you’d like to share?