10 tips for more compelling writing

No matter what type of writing you’re doing, these tips can help liven up limp copy.

My youngest sister is in graduate school, earning her Ph.D. in biology. Suddenly immersed in the “publish or perish” culture, she’s been struggling with the tiresome task of co-authoring research papers. She once sent me a text at 2:30 a.m. that said, “I don’t know how you can write as your career. I want to set my laptop on fire right now.”

Whether it’s academic, corporate, or technical text, or you’re simply trying to think of what to scribble on a colleague’s birthday card, writing can be bewildering, tedious work.

To make it less so, I pulled together the following writing tips.

1. Write first; edit later.
Do not edit as you write. Research on the lateralization of the brain tells us that editing is a “left brain” function and writing is a “right brain” function. To make your writing more effective, turn off your left-brain critic and just write.

2. Write for your reader.
One of the basics of good writing is to know your audience. For whom are you writing? What motivates them to read your material? How can you make your topic relevant to your readers? This rule applies no matter what you’re writing. Whether it’s a press release, a feature article, or a blog post, begin with your audience in mind.

3. Outline, outline, outline.
Do you plan, outline, and organize before you start writing? Or do you “just write” and put things down without considering how to organize the content? An outline can form the foundation of your article, but creating one does not have to be complicated. Unlike the outlines your teachers required in high school, your outline can be as simple as a numbered list.

4. Read your work aloud.

How does it sound when you read what you’ve written back to yourself? Is your writing clear and direct? Are your sentences too long? Is the style too formal?

5. Lead with the most important message.
Get to the point in the first few words. Don’t expect readers to read a long introductory paragraph, with the “what” and “why” buried at the end.

6. Use concise language and eliminate redundancies.
Are there words that seem to add very little to your content? Pruning phrases is an easy way to tighten your writing (use “mystery” instead of “unsolved mystery”; use “revert” instead of “revert back”). You can also cut out extraneous phrases, such as “all things considered” and “due to the fact that.”

7. Choose simple words over complex words.
The use of unfamiliar or complex terms interferes with comprehension and slows readers down. Readers may even skip terms they don’t understand, hoping to find their meaning in the rest of the sentence (use “carry out” instead of “implement”; use “improve” instead of “ameliorate”).

8. Choose your adjectives carefully.
As writing guru Ann Wylie says, “Which word provides a better description of a puppy: ‘brown’ or ‘cute’?” The use of indirect and unclear descriptors can cause readers to ignore or misinterpret your message. The same goes for adjectives that have lost their meaning through overuse or misuse (“unique,” “amazing,” “revolutionary”). Descriptors should be precise.

9. Mind your verbs.
A common problem with corporate writing is that it’s full of lazy, meaningless verbs. “Utilize,” “implement,” “leverage,” “disseminate”—these words litter our writing and weaken our message. The verb is the powerhouse of your sentence. Choose clear, active verbs instead of throwaway ones (use “send” instead of “disseminate”; “start” instead of “implement”).

10. Use similes and metaphors to enliven your copy.
When used correctly, similes and metaphors help us paint pictures with words, adding depth to our messages. (“That meeting was painful, like a long walk in tight shoes.”) But avoid clichés and metaphors that are so commonplace that they’ve lost their power completely. Clichés can make your writing dead in the water.

I shared these writing tips with my sister, but I also sent her a copy of “Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School” by Adam Ruben. I’m not sure which she needed most.

Ragan.com readers: Any other writing tips to share?

Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor and a regular contributor to PR Daily. Read more of her work at impertinentremarks.com.

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