Whether you’re a professional wordsmith, an occasional writer or a businessperson whose job demands writing (whether you like it or not), these five tips can help improve your writing and make self-editing less painful.
Organize your ideas. If you were a carpenter, you wouldn’t build a bookcase without a plan, right? Same thing goes for writing. Pre-writing can save you time, money and headaches. Organize your thoughts in advance and decide on the most important points you want to cover. I’m old school and still chunk out what I plan to write on paper first; it’s not a formal outline, just a list of key elements. Software such as Scrivener offers electronic tools for organizing long-form writing (if you prefer that over my less technologically savvy method of pen and paper). The goal is to envision the finished piece before you dive into writing.
Vary sentence length. (No one wants to read your writing. When sentence length does not vary. It creates a droll monotone. Don’t put your readers to sleep. Are you still with me or gone?) Good writing is like a tasty salad: it’s not all lettuce, but a mix of greens, tomatoes, onions and peppers, maybe a few croutons or nuts tossed in to vary the texture and add flavor. Vary the length of your sentences and reread your writing for rhythm and cadence. Some sentences can be long. Others can be short. Some can flow like water, while others can fire off quick thoughts. Break long sentences into two (or three). Use dashes, parentheses, ellipses and bullet points to vary sentence length and feed readers ideas in a digestible format.
Avoid jargon (a/k/a Make Grandma understand). All industries have their own business speak and technical terms. It’s insider language. And yes, we need to use those words sometimes (particularly in technical documentation and reports). However, overuse of technical language—especially when writing for readers outside your inner circle—crosses the line into jargon. As content marketer/brand journalist Mark Ragan once said in a business writers’ training, “Bring it down the abstract ladder.” Simple writing is better. If your grandmother can understand it, you’ve likely kept industry jargon to a minimum.
Let it marinate overnight. When deadlines permit, step away from the keyboard and set your writing aside for a few hours. It’s amazing how a walk, shower, bite to eat or good night’s sleep can bring fresh eyes and perspective to your own writing. I always find ways to edit and improve my writing when I have time to let it “marinate” a bit … even when I thought it was good to go.
Spellcheck and proofread. Please. This is my personal pet peeve with so much writing found online. In our collective rush to hit the “publish” button, too many writers are taking shortcuts and failing to run the spell checker and proofread their work. Please, just do it! There’s no excuse not to, including that “mistakes on the Internet can always be corrected.” That may be true, but corrections after the fact cost time and money. Too many typos compromise your credibility and make your business look sloppy. If possible, have a coworker proofread your work to make sure you haven’t missed any oopses. Typos are sneaky little gremlins waiting to creep into your work and make their presence known AFTER you’ve published. Don’t let them!
As MarketingProfs founder Ann Handley wisely observed, “Everybody writes.” Please drop Wordsmithie a line if we can help. We’d love to hear what you’re working on.