My Top Ten Tips to improve writing are broken into five “put” rules (what to put into your writing) and five “cut” rules (what to cut from your writing).
Put one book per week on your “just finished” list. If that’s a stretch, make it one book per month. Or put into your brain every week the material from five lengthy, detailed articles. I’m not talking People magazine here, people. I’m talking about concept-heavy, detailed analyses on subjects typically outside your day-to-day work environment: Magazine or newspaper articles on science, psychiatry, executive leadership, or world affairs; how-to and self-help guides on being a better neighbor, a better handyman, or a better human; or biographical sketches on your favorite athlete, your long-lost cousin or your state’s most famous person. Every great writer was first a great reader.
Put yourself in your audience’s place. What do they want to gain from reading your words? Use the words I, me, my and mine sparingly. Sure, of course they want to know you speak from experience, but they want to hear how they can use your knowledge and experience to improve their own results.
Put the main point of your document right up front. Irrespective of whether it is a media release, position paper, response to an RFP, novel, speech, magazine article, or direct mail piece, tell the reader right away the point you want them to walk away with. Likewise, put the main point of the document you’re writing into the last paragraph to reiterate the point – restating it so you don’t sound repetitive. In journalism classes, we were taught, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them again.
Put the main point of each paragraph or section in the first sentence, add a supporting statement in the middle and end the paragraph with a reiteration of the main point – or elegantly segue into the next paragraph. Many readers will skim through your work. Following this formula ensures that even if they read only the first sentence in each paragraph, they will receive the gist of the piece.
Put readers into the scene with descriptive words and phrases, don’t tell them what happened using “thud” words. In a media release, it is far more evocative to read, “Most people in the audience were in tears as Mr. Charles closed his remarks and slowly maneuvered his wheelchair off the stage,” than to read, “He wheeled himself across stage to accept his award.” And in a response to a request for proposal, it is far better for a prospective client to read, “Our team members act as right-hand assistants, guiding you through the installation process and answering your questions in easy-to-understand language,” than to read, “We have great customer service reps.”
Cut the cute. This is especially important in business writing. While it is acceptable to be creative and expressive in making a point in any type of writing, it’s not advisable to load up your document with a lot of fancy-pants, flowerly-fun words.
Cut the excessive use of adjectives and superlatives. Consider how you would react to the following passages in a speech: “Thank you from the very bottom of my grateful, full and appreciative heart for this lovely and very generous award that you have chosen to bestow upon me.” A better way for the award recipient to express herself: “I am deeply grateful to be honored with this prestigious award.”
Cut the B.S. It is surprising to me how many professionals load up their business communications with jargon. And I see so much repetitiveness in business writing that I wonder how these people rose to the position of, say, EVP of Marketing. Some of what I read resembles music that I used to call scrambed-egg rock – just too much “noise and junk” in the mix to be able to hear the melody and the lyrics.
Cut crazy-long, run-on sentences into separate sentences. Someone reading your multi-faceted sentences full of multiple phrases will tend to lose interest. If the reader must refer back to the beginning and the middle of the sentence to be reminded of the point you are trying to make, he or she will skip ahead a few paragraphs to try and find something more coherent. I’m as guilty of this as many of those I consult with about writing more succinctly. I remind myself often that less is more in almost any type of writing.
Cut the time you labor over your first draft. When you are facing a deadline to turn in a proposal, complete a speech, or produce the first draft of a book for your agent or publisher, constantly remind yourself to “write right now, edit later.” Sit down to write and let it flow. It is called free-writing: the exercise is used by even the most seasoned writers. Sit down, write all you can on the subject or on that particular section of your document, then leave it alone for as long as your schedule allows. When you return to it, you can edit and rewrite as necessary. Proofreading for grammatical errors is the last step in polishing your work.