Remember in high school, when anyone who bombed the SAT said it didn’t matter because they weren’t going to be a writer, anyway? Chances are they were wrong. If you add up all the emails you send, all the presentations you put together and all the reports you pass up the chain, it’s likely you spend way more time writing than you think. Whether you like it or not, your readers, from clients to co-workers, are forming an opinion of you based on what you put out there.
In order to be a good writer, you must focus on providing something of value to your readers. No blog post, story, sales deck or email should ever be about you. Instead, focus on your readers and how you can inspire them, teach them or otherwise enhance their lives. Start thinking of yourself as a writer and use the 13 writing tips below to take your story to the next level.
1. Know your audience.
The number one question for a writer to ask before they begin: who am I writing for? Knowing your readers and what they think about will tell you what tone to take — silly, serious, professional, fired-up or even-keeled — and the kind of language to use.
For example, if your readers are lawyers, an emoji-filled listicle on how to attract more social followers isn’t appropriate content. However, a 2000-word opinion on the legality of sanctuary cities likely is. Know how educated your audience is, how old they are, if they’re family-oriented or single, where they live and anything else you can find out. How well you know your readers will always come through in your writing. The more you know, the closer they’ll feel to you and the more they’ll want to read the story you’ve crafted.
2. Have a purpose.
Based on what you know your readers care about, determine what you are trying to communicate. If you’re writing that piece on sanctuary cities, what are you trying to say about them — that they’re good? Bad? Complex?
Now take it to the next level: why are you trying to communicate this idea? Do you want your readers to take cases involving sanctuary cities? Do you want them to issue their own statements in favor of or against sanctuary cities?
Once you know that, the last thing to consider is why you’re trying to communicate these ideas at this particular moment. Right now, for example, sanctuary cities are a hot topic. There’s relatively little precedent around them, so you may want to sway lawyers and judges while there’s still an opportunity to do so. Urgency brings abstract ideas into sharp focus and motivates people to take action, so always tell your readers why your point is important right now.
3. Show readers why they should care.
As crazy as it sounds, you knowing that your readers care about something is different from your readers knowing they care. You want to engage your readers emotionally, so it’s important to remind them of the real-life effect a particular matter will have on their lives.
Let’s say your readers live in a sanctuary city and you want them to call their senators and voice their support. You know that they’re lawyers and are interested in the issue from a legal standpoint, but you also know that the majority of these readers have children. Instead of writing “sanctuary cities offer important community protections,” you might say, “sanctuary cities show our children that ‘liberty and justice for all’ isn’t just something we say at school, it’s something we fight for in life.” Engaging your readers' feelings for children and juxtaposing those with the issue at hand will create an emotional connection your readers wouldn’t have made on their own.
Even if you’re writing about ideas that are far less polarizing and exciting — say recruiting materials for the admissions department — always frame the issue in terms that relate to your audience. For example, make the person you’re recruiting the main character by saying "our program’s rigorous enrollment standards ensure that you’ll graduate among the top 1% of marketers in the nation.” Keep the readers at the center of the story.
4. Prioritize clarity.
When analyzing sentence structure, this should always be your number one style priority. If your target audience can’t understand what you mean to communicate, the work you’ve put in is wasted. Before you know it, you’ve turned away readers you worked really hard to attract.
To test your writing for overall clarity, simply remember the “five w's”: who, what, when, where and why. While not every element is relevant to everything you write, if your piece communicates what you’re trying to say, why it’s important right now and how people can take action, you’ve done your job.
Additionally, your readers will recognize when you’re trying to sound smart, pad your story for length or stuff keywords into a blog post, so don’t do things like that. Effectively communicating all your ideas should be your primary concern.
5. Be specific.
Brands often write in vague terms to lead consumers to certain conclusions while avoiding concrete commitments. For example, a company might describe themselves as a “local bag brand,” giving consumers the impression that the company’s goods are made locally, when in reality the goods are made elsewhere, and it’s only the company’s office that’s local.
Consumer trust matters a whole lot if your goal is to build a lasting brand supported by loyal customers that will stand the test of time. Specificity of language will go a long way toward building that trust.
6. Find the right economy of language.
The English language is meant to be efficient. As a rule, if you can use a single word to replace a phrase — you should. How far you take this, though, depends on your branding and your audience. If you’re a messaging app for millennials, “super talkative” might resonate more than “loquacious” because of the platform and audience age.
Conversely, don’t sacrifice clarity by making your writing too efficient. When you write using informal, intra-office communications (email, Slack, etc.) people will often leave articles and even sentence subjects out of their messages to save time.
Let’s say you’re a luggage brand, and one of your retailers is having a problem with a customer. If your boss sends you something that reads “Spoke with retailer. Stopping by at 11,” you might not be able to discern who is stopping by where and you’ll have to ask for clarification. Ultimately, in an effort to maximize efficiency, your boss sacrificed clarity and ended up making more work for both of you.
7. Use the singular "they."
It’s 2017; time to step into the light and stop using “he” as the default pronoun for unspecified consumers or coworkers. The singular “they,” while taboo in sixth grade, was named the 2015 word of the year and is now 100% acceptable for all genders. If your brand serves a mixed-gender audience, or if you’re writing an HR handbook for your co-ed team, use the singular “they” to include not only men and women but non-gender-conforming employees as well.
And while you’re at it, stop casually referring to co-ed groups as “guys,” as in “good morning, guys!” Believe it or not, you’re reinforcing male dominance when you use “male” as the default group setting. Big changes start in small places.
8. Use active voice.
Write in active voice — a construction in which the subject of the sentence performs the action of the sentence —as often as possible, and eliminate, for the most part, the passive voice — in which an action is performed on the subject.
“You are being let go” is an example of the passive voice. The sentence tells us what’s happening to you, but not who’s responsible. Use of the passive voice is common in sensitive situations like terminations, when individuals employ it to distance themselves from responsibility.
Scan each paragraph for use of the passive voice. While sometimes it’s the clearest way to make policy statements, more often than not it’s a way to dodge responsibility. Instead of telling your boss, “There was a mix up with their order,” say, “I input their order incorrectly.” Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone knows how to own them; a good boss will appreciate your integrity a lot. If this is an issue for you, using the active voice in your essay writing is a great first step since it’s far less intimidating than owning up in person. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll feel admitting mistakes in any context.
9. Don't mix your metaphors.
Because metaphors often don’t make obvious sense, it can be hard to know when you’ve used one incorrectly. A mixed metaphor involves one of two mistakes:
The first is when you communicate a single idea using two or more metaphors that don’t make sense together. (For example: “we want to hit the ground running and be a success right off the bat.”) The problem here is that the metaphors derive from two different contexts and basically mean the same thing. You’re going to want to choose one of the two, but not both.
The second version of a mixed metaphor is when you combine two separate metaphors into one confusing image. For example, a coworker once reported on the status of a project with “she gave me the green thumb.” Mistakes like these can undermine you in little ways, like distracting your coworkers from the presentation you’re giving, and in bigger ones, like convincing your superiors you can’t be trusted to speak off the cuff at events.
10. Choose active verbs.
Any time in which you want your reader to take action calls for strong verbs. (Social media and community managers should be especially conscious of this, as you have so many fewer characters in which to persuade your readers to do what you want.) For example, when brainstorming email subject lines, instead of “Keep Your Little One Sunburn-Free,” consider, “Protect Your Little One From A Dangerous Sunburn.” The second verb (“protect”) is far more powerful than the first (“keep”) and puts more responsibility on your readers’ shoulders, so they’ll feel compelled to open the email on time and fulfill that responsibility.
11. Put only one space after the period.
Using two spaces after a period makes you look outdated. That’s not a vibe you want to give off, especially if you’re writing for a tech platform, start-up or any other brand where trend awareness is key.
It’s also very frustrating for editors to whom you might be submitting guest blog posts. Copy editing departments at publications have been cut to the bone, so any extra work you make for the remaining staff will leave a bad taste in their mouth. Worse, many outlets have eliminated copy editors altogether, meaning the editors themselves are doing that work and their own. Spend the time to correct your own work to keep a good editorial contact.
12. Don’t underline for emphasis.
These days, everything from spreadsheets to emails to PDFs contains hyperlinks, which we denote by underlining the hyperlinked word. We assume that any underlined word is linked to something relevant, and you should therefore not use the underline for anything else. Instead, consider bolding or italicizing the word you want to draw attention to.
Whether you’re sending an email, publishing a blog post or preparing a presentation for the executive team, take the time to read through your work and catch any mistakes. This is especially important where consumer-facing materials are concerned, as mistakes in brand materials can tarnish their reputation in the eyes of the consumer. Before publishing consumer-facing materials, ask a team member who’s unfamiliar with the project to read over it. It’ll be easier for them to catch typos your brain has already gotten used to seeing.
Today, the best paying jobs require that you be a strong communicator, both in person and on paper. Whether you’re just realizing that or you’re already making an effort to write more effectively, the guidelines you’ve read in this article include everything you need to become a solid, confident writer that your clients, coworkers and superiors can depend on.
Emily Rose is a storyteller at heart, a Kentuckian living in Brooklyn. Also an NYU/Tisch grad, she produced an EP, performed Shakespeare, recorded voice-overs, and taught music to kids before becoming a marketer in the start-up world. Follow her at @the_gremily, and do let her know if you'd like to publish her children's story.