Writing is not an easy task.
I’ve been writing and editing professionally for more than 15 years, and I still struggle. At least once a week, someone will catch me in a writer’s stare, focused intently on a blank screen, unable to call up the right words.
I’m always looking for ways to improve my skills, so I often jump at the chance to help others with their writing.
In helping my kids with their English homework or my sister with her fellowship admission essay, I hone my knowledge by offering advice that I haven’t tapped into for years.
In the interest of helping greener wordsmiths, here are six things that you should understand about writing:
1. Write for your reader.
One basic of good writing is knowing your audience.
For whom are you writing? What motivates them to read your material? How can you make your topic relevant to them?
You might want to include 500 words of background information, but that doesn’t mean readers want to ingest it. Begin with your audience in mind.
2. Lead with the most important message.
Mention the most important or actionable items at the beginning. Don’t expect readers to read a long introductory paragraph, with the “what” and “why” buried at the end.
In the words of usability expert Jakob Nielsen: “Give away the farm. First. The whole farm: cows, plows, chicks, the silo—everything.”
3. Start with the “why.”
Sometimes the most effective way to get to the point is to start with the “why.”
Whether you’re telling customers about a price increase, alerting employees to changes in company policy or encouraging people to get a flu shot, leading with the “why” helps everyone understand the purpose of your message up front.
Because we are uncertain of the health risks associated with electronic cigarettes, these devices have been banned at all facilities.
4. Outline, outline, outline.
Do you plan, outline and organize before you start writing—or do you jot 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 teachers required in high school, your outline can be as simple as a numbered list.
5. Choose simple words over complex words.
The use of unfamiliar or complex terms interferes with comprehension and slows down readers. They might even skip terms they don’t understand, hoping to find their meaning in the rest of the sentence.
For example, use “carry out” instead of “implement”; use “improve” instead of “ameliorate.” Would you read, or skip, the sentence below?
As the new year commences, we are leveraging our core competencies as we endeavor to meet our customers’ needs.
6. Don’t fall in love with your own words.
Realize that your work will be changed.
It’s the job of an editor to ensure that your work carries readers where they must go. If it doesn’t, paragraphs will be moved or deleted. Sentences will be broken up. Words will be changed—including that clever turn of phrase over which you labored. Be prepared.
What advice would you give to less-experienced writers?
Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor and a regular contributor to Ragan.com and PR Daily. Read more of her work at impertinentremarks.com.