Learning to become a better writer, like any skill you want to master, takes practice and a desire to improve. Most professionals, myself included, want to become better writers. From my experience, it’s the practice part where things fall apart.
I still have a long way to go to become the writer I want to be. For starters, I use too many words. My sentences are too long and for certain formats – blogging for instance, my posts are too long. I’m working to improve at this. My writing would also improve greatly if I would write, re-write and revise more often. I think a lot of people fall into this trap, when publishing content for a blog is more about speed than quality.
As I’ve started to write more this year, I’ve been reminded of some of the tips that have helped me along the way. These tips apply to different types of writing, but they can be applied across many formats depending on your need.
Regardless of how familiar you are with some of these suggestions, my hope is that one of them will stick with you.
- 5ws – The 5Ws (Who, What, When, Why and Where) are a good starting point for any news writing. It’s where I still start when I draft a news release. Your “news” should answer these five questions (and sometimes the sixth non-W of “how?”). Who is the news about? What is the news? Why is it relevant? When and Where does the news take place? The “When” and “Where” questions can often be answered with a dateline.
- Inverted Pyramid – the inverted pyramid style, as most journalists know, is the approach of including the most relevant information early on in your story. Picture an upside down pyramid, where the greatest mass of the object is up top. When writing a news release or article, you should answer your 5Ws in the first few paragraphs. This approach became popular because news stories where often cut short in traditional print environments, and you’d want your most-important information included.
- The Cs – in marketing communications and some PR writing, it’s important to communicate something Compelling. You should keep your messaging and voice Consistent. You should communicate Clearly and Cohesively, using brevity wherever possible. If possible, your content should lend Credibility to your organization or source as an expert. Finally, your information should be communicated in Context to your audiences interests. There are many other Cs to effective writing. You can find many of those lists with a simple Google search.
- Why Am I Writing? – a useful planning tool when preparing to write, and a vehicle that has helped me break writers’ block several times, is to answer the questions “Why am I writing this?” and “What response do I want the reader to have?” In the case of this blog post, I’m writing to provide some tips on more effective writing. I’m hoping that you, the reader, finds something of value in these tips, encouraging you to comment or share the post with others. This is the objective of this piece.
- Most Persuasive Words – I’ve seen several studies that have looked at the most persuasive words in the English language (here is one such list of the words). Psychologists believe using these words in speeches and other marketing content can help persuade audiences more effectively. Some of my favorite words on the list include “You”, “Proven”, “Discover”, “Love” and “Results”. For example, “You’ll love the results you get when you use these words in your marketing content. Use them in your writing and discover why they are proven to persuade audiences more effectively.” I for one think some of these words are overused in marketing content, so they might not hold the power they once did.
Some other general writing tips that may help you when you’re sitting down to write that next piece:
- Know Your Topic – you need to be an expert on your subject. Even if you’re writing a bylined article for an executive, you must understand that topic as good (if not better) as the source. The more time you spend on preparation, the better your content will be. When writing highly-technical pieces, you may consider having your expert take a first pass at writing the piece – since they are the expert. Take the back seat as an editor, and your final product may be of higher quality.
- Develop and Maintain Focus – stay on-topic and avoid trying to cram all your information into one piece, or to cover multiple topics. Consider breaking out multi-topic content into separate pieces. This is one area I am often guilty of. As I look at this point, I realize this post may be in violation.
- Who Are You Talking To? – keep your audience in mind. Speak on their level. Don’t use jargon unless you’re confident that the audience knows what you’re talking about. Similarly, if you’re writing for a professional journal, you might not want to write in a loose, conversational voice.
There are many useful resources to help you become a better writer. Some of my favorites include:
- The AP Stylebook – the bible for news writing, this book provides guidance on the proper usage of many different words and phrases. For example, is it “Internet” or “internet”? It’s the former according to the AP.
- The Elements of Style – it’s a classic, and many of the suggestions are no longer appropriate for much writing, but this book is a must-read for any professional writer.
- Public Relations Workbook Writing & Techniques – a great resource for public relations professionals. It provides a ton of “how tos” specific to PR writing and was the textbook I used in my PR writing class in college. I think there is a new version coming out soon, as this one is a little outdated. There may be more current works on the subject, but this one is a great primer for those just getting started in PR writing.
What writing tips and tricks do you live by? What resources do you recommend for writers looking to improve? Please share your thoughts.