Write Like You Mean It: 16 Tips to Revamp Your Process
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” — George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”
Good writing is easy to identify and hard to qualify. The best description I’ve seen comes from the aptly named blog Without Bullshit: “be clear, be brief, and don’t be boring.” We hold ourselves to this approach at Bateman Group (we’re a content-led agency, after all). Whether or not you consider yourself a natural writer, there’s always room to improve your style and storytelling. Here are 16 writing tips to guide you from the first brainstorm to the final copy edit.
Stage 1: Prewriting
A cohesive, compelling piece requires direction, and that often comes from a strong idea of what you want to convey. To find that direction, read for inspiration. Once you have an idea, take time to research and plan your piece.
- Read, read and read some more. The best way to improve your writing is to read. Go out of your way to read diverse styles, authors and formats — you’ll learn different things from long-form reporting, opinion pieces and creative nonfiction. Consider jotting down words and phrases that inspire you and revisit them every once in a while, especially when your ideas are feeling stale.
- Use your imagination. Before you write anything, envision the end result. Ask yourself: Why am I writing this? What’s my point of view? What will people take from my article?
- Gather the raw materials. Catalog everything you need to tell your story: statistics, quotes, examples, expert opinions, multimedia and so on. If you’re interviewing someone, create a list of questions and share them with the interviewee at least a day in advance, so she can come to the interview prepared.
- Plan your structure. Create an outline, even if it’s brief, and run it by someone you trust. If you’re stuck, you can use the template you learned in English class: start with an introduction that articulates your “thesis,” support your argument with specific examples, and conclude with a clear takeaway.
- Empathize with your readers. Identify your audience by thinking about your readers’ needs, preferences and questions. If you were the reader, what would you want to know? As part of this exercise, be sure to consider the outlet (blog, LinkedIn, third-party publication, etc.) and adjust your tone accordingly.
Stage 2: Writing
The first draft is an opportunity to experiment. Use your outline as a guide, not a mandate. Explore where your ideas take you and try to find a sense of flow. Don’t get overly attached or self-critical at this stage.
- Wake up early. Researchers have found that the prefrontal cortex — the “creative brain” — is most active in the early morning, just after you wake up. Consider writing early in the day to tap into this creative energy.
- Eliminate distractions. Listen to music that helps you think (some people swear by jazz; I personally like epic movie soundtracks). Post up in a place where you won’t be disturbed. Using a plain-text editor like ZenPen can help with visual distractions.
- Write something — anything. When you face a mental block, write whatever comes to mind. Use the power of your stream of consciousness and try your best to dismiss the self-judgment. Sometimes you need to get the dull ideas on paper before unearthing the shiny ones.
- Be specific. Include examples and analogies that people can understand and relate to. Support your claims with statistics, anecdotes and quotes. Don’t be afraid to cite examples from your personal experience if they’re relevant.
- Break it up. Many readers have short attention spans. Cut long sentences into multiple shorter ones, so they’re easier to digest. Don’t be shy about using short paragraphs and separating your sections with visual cues like headers or dividers.
- Leave the first for last. Come back to your introduction after you’ve finished a first draft. You’ll have a better idea about how you want to start, and can tie your intro and conclusion together.
Stage 3: Editing
After the creative bliss of writing, edit yourself ruthlessly. Once you’ve edited, enlist others to help. Ideally they’ll challenge your thinking, remove fluff and spot errors.
- Leave it alone. Don’t jump into editing after finishing your draft. Take at least a few hours — and ideally a day — to clear your mind before revising.
- Be ruthless. Readers won’t stick with you through the long-winded explanations, unnecessary details or filler words. Cut out repetition and anything that doesn’t serve the reader.
- Use active voice. Identify every instance of passive voice and rewrite as many as possible. You can find passive voice by looking for to-be verbs: be, being, been, am, is, was and were. Note that not every sentence with a to-be verb is necessarily passive, so make sure you understand the difference between passive and active voice.
- Remove jargon. Insider language and buzzwords make you look pompous. What’s more, your readers will have a hard time understanding you. Consult the expertly curated MBA Jargon Watch for a list of words to avoid.
- Tap the right editors. Find someone who can give you feedback on your writing, and ask them to focus on sentence flow, clarity, point of view, and so on. You also need someone detail-oriented enough to edit for grammatical errors and typos. These may or may not be the same person.
With a little experimentation, an epic movie soundtrack and a commitment to editing, you can be a great writer. Now go forth and write with sincerity. Be clear, be brief, and don’t be boring.