Whether you’re writing website copy for a B2B company or writing a book review for a New York Times Bestseller, your writing should be clear and effective. It should not only speak to the intended audience but make it easier to take in that information by writing with style and clarity. There’s nothing worse than looking something up and finding the information difficult to absorb. Here are a few ways you can improve your writing while taking a trip down memory lane–back to your English 101 days.
1. Avoid plumping up your writing with unnecessary prose. This is sometimes called fluff or filler and it doesn’t actually help anyone. It stifles the message you’re trying to get across and only confuses people. Use simple, short sentences. Avoid fancy words and be straightforward. Just write what you want your audience to know in the simplest way possible. This will allow you to appeal to a wider audience.
2. Know which rules to follow and which to push aside. Over the centuries, a lot of grammatical rules have popped up and some aren’t as much rules as they are opinions. Know the difference between grammatical rules and social opinion. For instance, the rule “Don’t use hopefully for I hope, as in: Hopefully, it won’t rain” (Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace) isn’t really a rule. If you’re going to be a writer, at least know which rules to follow and which ones to give the ax.
3. Don’t use words of which you don’t know the meaning. Society has come to accept a few words that don’t actually mean what we think they do. Be wary of these words. A few examples: aggravate means “to make worse” not “to annoy” like most of us believe; disinterested means “neutral,” not “uninterested” as it sounds; enormity means “hugely bad,” not “enormous” (Style).
4. Write in active voice instead of passive. Active voice gives action to the subject of your sentence and moves the story or passage along. For example, “My mom’s reckless driving to the store occurred” takes all of the action out the sentence. However, “My mom drove recklessly to the store” not only sounds better, but it gives action to the sentence and tells a story.
5. Present old information first and new information last. This order just makes sense to most people. For instance, you wouldn’t say, “
6. Use the “you-centered” approach. Write directly to the audience by using pronouns like “You, We, Our, and Us.” This makes whatever message you’re trying to get across more personal. It also makes the reader feel like the message is directed at them and it helps you better connect with them.
7. If you’re selling something, it’s best to describe the benefits of the product instead of the features. The feature is just a fact about a product while a benefit is what the product can do for the consumer. Tell them how the product will benefit them or add value to their lives. For instance, say you’re writing to sell a pencil. Mention that it won’t roll off your desk (a common problem) instead of describing the shape of the pencil.
8. Use rhetoric. One definition of rhetoric is the available means to persuade. Use persuasion to get your reader to do whatever it is you’re asking in your writing. Use ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos is an appeal to ethics and convinces someone of the credibility or ethical appeal of the author. Pathos is an appeal to emotion and convinces audiences by creating an emotional response (maybe telling a sad story). Logos is an appeal to logic and convinces an audience to believe something on the basis of reason. Using these appeals will certainly help sway the audience in your favor.
9. Use tropes. Tropes are often known as a figure of speech. They paint pictures with words. For instance, one might write: I flew off the handle at my son after he got suspended. Tropes give added flair and style to your writing. Be sure you know what the trope or figure of speech actually means before using it. You’d be surprised how many people mess those up.
10. Know your voice. Every writer has a unique voice, but when you’re writing for someone else it’s likely they’re going to want to have a voice of their own. This is where it gets tricky. When writing for corporations, you must follow that company’s voice. Most likely, the company will provide guidelines when they hire you and these guidelines will likely include following the standards for corporate voice in all written materials. In this case, it’s okay for your author voice to fall into the background a bit, but with freelance materials, you definitely want to know your voice and stick to it so that you’re writing can become distinctive and then familiar.
It can be tough writing for someone else, but these tips can help you become a better writer for the sake of your clients and your career. Some of the top professional writers use these same tips to improve their writing skills and therefore, their marketability as a freelancer. This leads to higher paying jobs and more experience, as well as more exposure as a writer.
Style:Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup)
The Copywriter’s Handbook (Robert Bly)