No matter what your profession is, chances are you have to do at least some writing as part of it. That said, writing probably isn’t one of those things that make you want to jump out of bed in the morning and get right to work. Good writing is, however, a highly marketable professional skill. It is also a very powerful tool in shaping ideas, building support, and generating understanding. All it takes is practice and a little patience. For this issue of our e-newsletter, I’d like to share 10 tips that have helped me improve my writing over the years. I hope they help you as much as they have helped me:
1. Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day.
OK, that might be overstating the point a bit. What I mean to say is big writing projects (feature articles, legal briefs) can be overwhelming. To make jobs like this more manageable, I break them down into pieces. First, I do my research. Then, I list out key points I want to make. Next, I make an outline. After that, I organize all my thoughts into each section of the outline. Once I’ve got all my thoughts in order, I write the first draft. I don’t try for perfection the first time. I just write. Then, I go back and refine until I am happy with the final product.
2. Write just like you speak.
No one uses words like malagrugrous or brabble in their daily language, and most people (including me) don’t even know what they mean. Therefore, these uncommon words and others like them don’t belong in your press release, memo, or brochure text. The same goes for medical jargon (unless you are communicating with others in the profession) and other industry-specific “insider” language. When you write, you want people to understand what you are trying to say. What I try to do is craft my sentences so they mirror how I would explain a particular point out loud to my target audience.
3. Learn to be concise.
Have you ever come up with a string of adjectives that are so great that you just have to use every single one in the same sentence? Well, resist the temptation. My uncle, a teacher, gave me very good advice when I was just learning to write, and I have tried to adhere to it throughout my career: Why say something in 500 words when you can say it in 50? Particularly in these days of texts, Tweets, and Facebook posts, people have short attention spans. No matter how masterfully written, a 10-paragraph e-mail pitch to your local newspaper is not going to be as effective as a three-paragraph version.
4. Do fun things outside of work that improve your vocabulary and writing style.
When it comes to media relations, I have found that reading articles written by journalists on my “Most Wanted” list really helps me connect with their style of writing. I also enjoy doing crossword puzzles, playing “Words with Friends” online, and some creative writing. I think these pastimes help get the creative juices flowing when I am back at my work desk, and they help improve my vocabulary.
5. Vary your word usage.
If I had a dollar for every time I used “verdant” in my writing when I worked for the Delaware Tourism Office, I’d be a rich woman right now. In retrospect, I realize that it’s better to describe things in a variety of ways (particularly if you have to describe the same thing repeatedly) to keep it interesting for the reader. This does require some creativity, but the copy of Instant Synonyms and Antonyms I’ve had since eighth grade English (and it is still in print, by the way) always helps me out when I need a good alternative to a particular word. The MS Word thesaurus works pretty well too. This rule holds for transitions as well (i.e. an “also” followed by another “also”). As a rule of thumb, I make it a point never to use the same transition more than once in the same paragraph.
6. Make your most important points first.
We already covered the fact that people have short attention spans. Assuming you are going to lose more of a reader’s attention as they read farther down the page (unless your topic is particularly compelling), make sure all your main points are made in the first paragraph or two of your document. You can then go back and expand on each point in the succeeding paragraphs. This is similar to the rule of thumb for news stories and press releases: Always include the five W’s (who, what, where, when, why) in the lead paragraph.
7. Invest time in developing your conclusion.
When we get to the end of whatever we are writing, we (again, me included) are often so ecstatic to be finished with our work that we rush through the conclusion. If we don’t give as much attention to ending our piece as we did to its beginning, we are missing the final opportunity to pull together all the key points in our writing into one impactful statement. What I often do is reiterate the ideas in my lead and then close with a call to action.
8. Follow the appropriate writing style for your industry.
Many large hospitals, corporations and universities have their own unique set of style guidelines for written communications. As public relations professionals, we follow the guidelines set forth in The Associated Press Stylebook, the same set of guidelines all print journalists follow. If you are communicating with the media, I highly suggest you invest in a copy. You can also sign up for an online subscription (for a fee).
9. Try the 24 hour rule.
If I am having a really tough time with a piece, I put it away for the day and work on other things. Like magic, the next morning I will pull it up on my computer screen, and the words flow much more easily. I also use this 24-hour rule once I am completely finished with a document. As long as time permits, I wait a full day and read the piece one last time before submitting it. It never fails, I always find little ways to improve upon my writing. Choppy or unclear sentences are also a lot easier to spot with a pair of fresh eyes.
10. Don’t underestimate the importance of the editing process.
At my first PR job, I developed a cooking class brochure for a restaurant client. It was a rush job so I decided to quickly proof it myself and send it out to print. Guess what? The telephone number to register for the classes was incorrect, and we didn’t catch the error until after it was mailed out. Needless to say, the South Philadelphia grandma attached to that phone number was not very happy with me. It was a hard lesson learned. Following that debacle, I developed a process for myself. No matter how much of a rush I’m in, I print out what I have written (you will never catch all the mistakes by viewing it on a computer screen) and thoroughly read through it at least twice. I then have at least one other person with solid editing skills carefully proof my work.
Good luck writing! It can be very rewarding, especially when the work you’ve done generates great results for your organization or business. And remember, if you decide you’d rather leave the writing up to someone else, Nancy Marshall Communications has a team of copywriting professionals ready to assist with your needs.