Sharpen up your writing: Three top tips

Typewriter with discarded first draftsI’ve  been working on a long internal communication document for a global pharma. My rough draft came to almost 10,000 words in total. After typing in “Ends” with some satisfaction, I reminded myself  I was still a way off being able to submit an official v1 to my client for review.

That’s because I know I can always improve my first attempt with some rigorous editing. As a rule of thumb,  I look to cut by at least 10 per cent. Invariably, it makes the copy clearer and more immediate – even if it’s not always easy to say goodbye to some turns of phrase I’m especially proud of.

During the editing process, there are a bunch of standby techniques and tips I find helpful. Here are the three at the top of my list:

1. Cut the waffle

Avoid flowery language and words designed to impress. That only stops you doing your job as a writer: communicating with impact and immediacy.  Instead, use the simplest words you can to carry the meaning and use language that can be easily understood by the vast majority of your readers.

Give only the essential facts and avoid unnecessary detail. In doing that, include only the essential words and phrases. You should aim for an average sentence length of 14-16 words – with some longer than that and others shorter to add variety.

As George Orwell tells us in his seminal essay ‘Politics and the English Language’: “Never use a long word where a short one will do”.

2. Use the active not the passive

The active voice makes the meaning clearer and makes the communication more direct and personal. Also, it usually makes the sentence shorter. Rather than providing a grammar lesson, some examples make the point well:

Passive Active
You will be notified in writing I will write to you
You will be collected at the airport We will pick you up
It was decided We decided

3. Turn nouns into verbs

Using verbs instead of nouns almost always makes copy clearer and shorter. Again, examples are better here than explanation:

Utilisation of the computer in payroll preparation will bring about a reduction in costs.(Five nouns, one verb) Using the computer to prepare the payroll will reduce costs.(Three nouns, three verbs)
The key to the success of the new training programme was the utilisation of customer feedback to change the existing training process to better meet customer needs.(Seven nouns, three verbs) The new training programme worked because we asked customers what they thought, and made appropriate changes.(Three nouns, four verbs)

Tips and techniques like this feature in my writing skills training workshops

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