Remember everything you learned in English class? Forget about it.
If you’re like most people, you grew up learning how to write essays, and short answers on tests. But for most people, those days are long gone. Now, you need to write a compelling email more than you need to analyze Fitzgerald’s view of American society in The Great Gatsby.
Thankfully, you don’t need to read a book cover-to-cover to step up your writing game. By taking just a few core principles to heart, and applying them, you can see a dramatic improvement in a short time frame. Here are a few key principles that make good writing, and that we use daily at Pathfinders.
Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible.
Keep in mind George Orwell’s six elementary rules (“Politics and the English Language”, 1946):
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do
- If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
- Never use the Passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a Jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Use the active voice.
For example: “I wrote the article,” instead of “the article was written by me.” The subject performs the action, instead of receiving. The active voice is direct, simpler and more confident.
Write with a sense of succinctness, composing copy that conveys the point you are trying to make in a tight, minimal way that distills the essential truth into a single nugget. Or simply… be concise.
Hack away at your copy.
Get rid of sentence clutter. Long paragraphs, like long sentences, can confuse the reader. “The paragraph”, according to Fowler, “is essentially a unit of thought, not of length; it must be homogeneous in subject matter and sequential in treatment.” One-sentence paragraphs should be used only occasionally.
Short sentences help.
Weave them in with long ones to keep things moving and interesting.
Revise, revise, revise.
The first draft is always crap.
Test your writing on yourself.
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
― Robert Frost
Break your high school English rules.
- Rules for spellings, punctuation, fragments, how to start and end sentences, can all be broken.
- Reverse the structure you were always taught. Lead with your top messages, then support.
- In high school, you were trying to look as intelligent as possible. In marketing, you want to write as clearly and compelling as possible for a specific audience.
In the end, the goal is not to “write well.” The goal is to communicate your message so people can understand it easily. And the more you do that in a way that is clear, and genuine, without trying to impress, the more successful your writing will be.