“How can I write better?”
I’ve heard this question from workmates many times. People in the business world are often plenty smart, but when it comes to writing down their thoughts, they’re not sure they “sound smart.”
Most of us don’t get formal writing training after college. Social marketers, in particular, focus more on short phrases, imagery and metrics than on full pages of copy.
I want to share some writing tips I have collected in my 10 years in the content marketing business. (That’s the equivalent of 70 human years, by the way.) They come from former bosses and colleagues, as well as from my own struggles in the daily grind. They should help you streamline your copy for readability and impact.
In other words, if you do these things you’re more likely to “sound smart.”
1. Cut back on adverbs
People use adverbs to really add emphasis. We all should significantly cut back on adverbs. I suggest, instead, that you offer more information or simply trust the reader to get your point.
Don’t: Metrics are extremely useful for social marketers.
Do: Metrics are useful to social marketers.
Do More: Metrics help social marketers track and optimize their campaigns.
2. Quell the -ing
Strings of gerunds (words that end with -ing) should be avoided and can usually be written another way. Plus, cutting back on gerunds often results in more engaging copy, also known as active voice.
Don’t: Simply Measured is your key to reviewing your Twitter campaigns, reporting on your success and rocking your job.
Do: Use Simply Measured to review your Twitter campaigns, report on your success and rock your job.
3. Explain “this” and “that”
In the business world you’re writing to convey a message or share information. Be specific to make that information clear. For example, don’t make your reader guess what “this” or “that” implies. Follow each with a single word or a phrase that ensures your reader understands you.
Don’t: Marketing budgets sometimes shrink after a tough quarter. Marketers must fight against this.
Do: Marketing budgets sometimes shrink after a tough quarter. Marketers must fight against this drop in funding / threat to their existence / bad business decision.
4. Avoid repeating words repeatedly
You’ll repeat a word without noticing. Trust me. Your brain is going to try to use a word that’s handy, such as the one you used in the previous sentence. Don’t do it. Be strong. Read your copy again, and figure out another way to say what you’re trying to say.
Don’t: In light of the news about Twitter’s updates, we’re going to shed some light on the topic of social media analytics.
Do: We’re going to revisit the topic of social media analytics in light of Twitter’s recent updates.
5. Avoid turns of phrase like the plague
For the love of all that is holy, avoid turns of phrase. Common examples include, “get to the bottom of,” “read between the lines,” “clear as a bell” or “sharp as a tack.” They can be fun but keeping them to a minimum forces you to be more specific with your language. “Sharp as a tack” becomes “great at offering insights in our monthly metrics wrap-up.”
6. So, watch your transitions
You can almost always eliminate “so,” “well,” “now then,” “therefore,” “clearly,” and other transitional words at the beginning of paragraphs. Good writing is all about clearing clutter.
Don’t: When we read more we write better. So, find time in your schedule to read.
Do: When we read more we write better. Find time in your schedule to read.
7. Write in the present tense
Humans like reading copy in the present tense. It’s more engaging. Write in the present tense even when you think you can’t.
8. Avoid writing a string of questions
Limit yourself to two questions in a row, and aim for one.
Don’t: Will writing multiple questions in a row help you connect with your reader? Is two enough? What about three? Is there a perfect number?
Do: Does writing multiple questions in a row help you connect with your reader? I don’t think so. Your reader is usually ready to hear from you after one or two questions.
9. Get to the point of the post within the first three sentences
This tip is specific to the Internet, where search engines reward clarity and specificity. It’s also helpful in a world where readers give an article about three seconds to determine whether it’s relevant to them.
10. No you’re grammatictcal week points
The most common mistake I make is using “your” instead of “you’re.” I’m also great at leaving out words. Any time I write a blog post or feature article, I try to review it about three times and, ideally, have someone else read it.
Here is a list of the errors that I see most often when copyediting. You might notice a habit of yours to keep in mind for the future:
Spelling: its vs. it’s, lets vs. let’s, their vs. there vs. they’re, lead vs. led
Formatting: two spaces instead of one between sentences, periods and commas outside quotation marks, inconsistent title case on headlines and subheads, inconsistent formatting on lists (periods, colons, title case, etc.)
Quality: lack of sourcing on outside resources and taking too long to get to the point
Please share your writing tips in the comments section.
Bridget Quigg is the director of content at social media analytics software leader Simply Measured. She’s a B2B content marketing geek who spends her free time writing music and performing comedy in her cloudy hometown of Seattle. A version of this article, “10 writing tips to help you sound smart,” originally appeared on Simply Measured.