8 Tips To Improve Your Writing
Posted by Dave McCue on April 8th, 2015
If you don’t start strong, readers have a reason to leave. If you don’t finish strong, they have a reason to forget. I’ve had the opportunity to produce a great deal of content at various stops on my professional journey, but I’ve tried to never lose sight of this “bookend” focus whether writing articles, scripting video voiceovers, producing white papers, constructing presentations, and so on.
The bookend focus is one example of the type of direction I give myself when it comes to content production. Here are a few more examples you may want to add to your own bag of content generation tricks:
1. Avoid blanket statements
Literal readers would question a statement such as, “every brand now recognizes the importance of social media,” and with good reason. Unless there is a statistic to back up such a claim, it comes across as a throwaway line that is very likely to be inaccurate, neither of which are assumptions I would want associated with my work. It takes some practice, but eliminating blanket statements can not only make writing sound more considered, but more importantly, it helps avoid making claims that can’t be substantiated.
2. Be creative, not repetitive
Common articles such as “the” and “a/an” don’t offer many alternatives, but wherever possible, it pays to eliminate repeat uses of the same word in a given sentence or even paragraph.
For example, take the following sentence:
This blog post is geared toward marketers who produce content for their organization with tips that can be applied toward their own blogs, videos, or any other types of content they might be producing in support of their marketing initiatives.
It’s not the worst thing ever, but listen to how much more polished it feels by simply eliminating the repetitive words:
This article is geared toward professionals who produce content for their organization with tips that can be applied toward blog posts, videos, or any other types of materials they might be generating in support of marketing initiatives.
Not only did I use unique alternatives for words such as blog (article), marketers (professionals) and content (materials), but I also eliminated the repetition of “their” because it was clearly implied who “they” were at the beginning of the sentence.
3. If it’s obvious, it should be obvious without you actually saying it
More of a personal pet peeve, and something I’ve probably been guilty of at some point, would be the use of words like “Clearly” and “Obviously” to begin a sentence. On the one hand, the content of that sentence may not necessarily be clear or obvious to the reader, so the insinuation is that they should know more than they do. At a minimum, it begs the question, “why re-state the obvious?”
4. Make it digestible
Early in my career I was writing for a newspaper and generating thousands of words of copy each week. I enjoyed what I was doing and bristled at the idea that people didn’t have time to sit down and read an entire newspaper full of long-form articles. Fast-forward 11 years, and I can now admit how wrong I was. Long-form is becoming the exception with entire websites dedicated to a steady stream of top-10 lists and other bite-sized formats, some of which almost entirely eschew text in favor of animated GIFs and videos. That doesn’t necessarily make your next 8-page white paper a pointless endeavor, but it’s worth evaluating any content you produce to identify opportunities where it can be streamlined or if it’s worth producing multiple formats to appeal to different members of your audience.
5. Arrangement is everything
The first four tips on this list are things that can become good habits over time, but sentence arrangement is a bit different. Even very skilled writers don’t always have the perfect flow when the words first hit the page/screen, but understanding how best to re-arrange a collection of thoughts can make a world of difference. This re-arrangement can involve moving entire paragraphs, shifting sentences within a paragraph or even shifting clauses within a single sentence. When you read through something you’ve written, and it doesn’t sound quite right, don’t be so quick to highlight and delete — in many cases, you’ve got the right thoughts, they just aren’t in the right place.
6. Don’t be Dr. Frankenstein
From time to time you may find yourself in a position where you’ve received contributions from other individuals around a common topic. Put it all together and you’ve got 1,000 words of copy, which is great because your word limit for the project in question is only 500. Should be easy, right? I’ve been there plenty of times, and in my experience, the voices of each contributor are so different that everything needs to be re-written to achieve any level of consistency. This is also a very common occurrence with slide show presentations only the “voice” of contributors in that situation comes in the form of the copy, graphics and the general formatting of the slide decks. Save yourself some time (and headaches), don’t try to be Dr. Frankenstein.
7. Forget the safety net
In many professional settings, the point of origin is not the point of approval for new content. This can lead to the “safety net” mindset where the goal of producing ready-to-use content competes with the knowledge that it will pass through several hands (and rounds of revisions) before it can ever be published. While the frustration with such processes is understandable, submitting anything less than a best effort for approvals not only slows those processes down by guaranteeing small scale changes, but also reflects poorly on the author. A good rule of thumb is to always imagine that there are no approval processes, and what you consider “final” will bear not only your company’s name, but your name as well.
8. Sometimes you need to start over
It’s a horrible feeling, but there are times when ideas just don’t go anywhere. You may start with a great introduction and soon realize the topic isn’t quite as meaty as you thought it was. Other times, you end up with several ideas that don’t mesh well enough to work as a standalone piece of content. The trick to starting over is making sure you don’t wait too long. If I feel like I’m approaching this point, I step away from the project for some period of time and focus on something else for at least 30 minutes or longer depending on the level of urgency. If I come back and still struggle to make progress, I usually go back to the drawing board. Those original ideas still have value, however, so even if you’re resigned to the fact that it’s time to start over, make sure to save a copy of the work done to that point for future reference and/or inspiration.
If content is king, as I’ve often heard in marketing circles, those of us who produce that content are in position to make a tremendous impact. Developing your own “rules to live by” when it comes to content generation can not only help you make that impact, but ensure that you’re proud of what you ultimately produce.
I’ll leave you with something a writing instructor once told me that I’ve never forgotten: The problem with the blank page is that there are an infinite number of ways to fill it poorly — don’t forget that the glass can be half full, there are an infinite number of ways to do it beautifully.