5 keys to powerful, precise writing

Whip your prose into shape with these tips—they work every time. Promise.

When I was in school, and an assignment for a paper was due, usually someone would ask, “Does the writing count?” One professor gave a succinct response that has stuck with me ever since:

“The writing always counts.”

Whether it’s a speech, a cover letter, a memo, or just a quick note, the writing always counts.

If your audience has to read your communication a few times to make sense of it, you’ll have lost them. If your memo fails to make your point crisply and clearly, you’ll have blown your chance. And, of course, if your cover letter rambles or doesn’t grab the attention of the hiring manager right away, you’ll hinder your chances of getting an interview.

Too often, though, we’re eager to grant ourselves exceptions to the rule. “It’s just a thank-you note … or an email … or a note to my kid’s teacher … or, or, or.”

How to make your writing count for—instead of against—yourself

If you feel like your writing could use some shaping up, the first thing to do is to own up to that. Commit to paying more attention to your writing, no matter what the circumstances or the audience. And then, to make it easier to keep your commitment, follow these five tips that work for everyone, every time. I promise.

1. Say it out loud.

Did you ever notice how much more fluid most people sound when talking than in their written voice? So many of us tend to get worked up and stressed out when trying to write something—way more so than when we are describing something out loud.

One fix for this is to actually say it out loud instead of writing what you want to say. Many apps exist now that help you record even lengthy comments. This site reviews some of the best ones. Try saying what you need to write. Then listen to it. And take the best parts and transfer those to your screen. Just write down what you already said. You can edit and clean it up. But you might find that you really like the way your “writing” sounds through this technique.

It works especially well when you are an expert and need to convey information about a topic you know inside and out to a group that knows much less about the topic. Picture the audience. And then turn the recorder on and explain the concepts as you might to a group of fifth-graders, clearly and simply (but not in a patronizing tone, please).

2. Unleash powerful verbs.

Verbs are the best friends of powerful, precise writing. They are strong, vibrant, and specific. Verbs help writers immediately convey an image to readers that would take many more words of description, otherwise. Here’s a quick example:

“The man burst through the door. He shrieked for a doctor. ‘Hurry, my son stopped breathing!'”

That’s five verbs within three sentences of just 15 words. Verbs grab attention. They help keep the pace of writing moving like a river, instead of stagnating like a pond. Keep in mind, especially when you’re stuck, that the clearest construction of sentences are noun/verb. Always. It’s foolproof.

3. Show, don’t tell.

Editors will often tell writers to “show, don’t tell.” That’s because showing works so much better. Some examples.

Tell: “It was a breezy and sunny morning.”

Show: “The trees’ leaves sparkled and danced in the golden dawn light.”

Tell: “When the driver slowed down, the car made noises.”

Show: “As the driver braked, the car groaned and rattled, as if complaining.”

Get the idea? The sentences that show let readers see the image. And they use more verbs than the sentences that just tell.

4. Provide examples.

Anecdotes help writing. It would’ve been much harder for me to explain the difference between showing and telling in tip No. 3 without those examples. Probably impossible to do effectively.

(Analogies work, too.)

If the concept you are writing about is technical or not common, using an example that compares it to something that most people are familiar with helps readers understand better.

Like this:

A fiber that’s as thick as one strand of hair.

The test was so hard just one in 10 of the students passed.

The therapy putty felt like Playdough.

The baby was so small the doctor’s thumb was the same width as the newborn’s leg.

These examples show why letting your readers visualize your writing with examples and anecdotes and analogies is effective. It gives them a picture or context.

5. Toss out wordy baggage

When you write, don’t worry if things aren’t perfect the first time through (or the second or third). In editing, though, one surefire way to spruce things up and improve your copy is to scout for the phrases and words that do nothing except take up space. Hunt them down and strike out phrases like these 11:

• there is
• it is
• and the reason why
• seeing as how
• during the course of
• due to the fact of
• as of now
• at the present
• at this point in time
• on account of
• despite the fact that

These phrases and their many close relatives hurt writing. When you see them creep into your material, be ruthless with them and kick them out.

Becky Gaylord worked as a reporter for more than 15 years in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, and Sydney, before she launched the consulting practice, Gaylord LLC. You can read Becky’s blog Framing What Works, where a version of this story first appeared.

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