Friday Scribbles: 10 Tips That Will Improve Your Writing Right Now

writing tips

As the week wraps up, we offer some of our thoughts on content marketing, curate a few interesting articles we’ve come across, and tell you what we’ve been up to.

When reviewing text online, people only read an average of 18% of what’s on a page. That means the more words you put on the page, the fewer words people read. And that applies to hard copy too. So, it’s important to keep your writing short, sweet, and to the point.

Here are 10 writing tips that will help you do just that, condensed from a session I led this week at the annual meeting of the Virginia chapter of the APRA. You can use these tips for any type of writing, whether it’s an email, letter, white paper, blog, or even a social media post.

1. Set a goal.

If you don’t know what you want to say at the outset—if you haven’t outlined or at least brainstormed some bullet points—you’re going to ramble, and the clarity of your writing will suffer. More often than not, your writing will also end up being longer than necessary.

2. Put your main idea first.

Attention spans drop through the course of a page. To ensure you’ve made your point, put your main idea first. You aren’t writing a mystery novel or telling a joke. Therefore, you don’t want to save the punchline for the end.

3. Write short sentences.

The sweet spot for comprehension is between 20 and 25 words. Longer than that, and your reader is likely to get lost in your sentences. One way to shorten your sentences is to focus on using subject-verb-object order. Try to keep your subjects and verbs close together to minimize the work your reader has to do.

4. Use active voice.

Passive voice convolutes sentence structure. It also downplays the person taking the action. (You’ll occasionally want to do that, if you’re trying to hide what someone did or if you don’t know who did something, but otherwise, it’s not a great idea.) It also adds unnecessary words to your structure. If you can add “by zombies” after your verb, you have passive voice, and you should work to flip the sentence to an active structure.

5. Use strong words.

Imprecise wording breeds additional words. Instead of saying “the very small dog that was making incessant noise,” call him a “yipping chihuahua.” Paints a stronger picture, doesn’t it? Choose your verbs wisely too and use the simplest form possible. Don’t noun your verbs either: instead of “make a decision,” use “decide.”

6. Make it parallel.

Parallel structure—where items in a pair or series match each other grammatically—makes it easier for readers to comprehend what you’re saying. Ensure that you are using the same parts of speech in the same structure in your series, and you’ll be good to go. (For example, don’t mix an infinitive verb with the present tense, for example: make sure all of the verbs match in tense and usage.)

7. Keep it simple.

Big words don’t make you sound smart. And they also burden the reader, because they have to figure out what you’re trying to say. Get rid of the long words, jargon, and thesaurus, and use the simplest, clearest word you can.

8. Use fewer words.

We’ve learned bad habits over time. We’ve spent a lot of time fluffing up our writing, thanks to high school assignments that made us add adjectives, adverbs, intensifiers, and the like to meet word quotas. Excise the fluff: get rid of words like “very,” “actually,” “really,” and others that take up space without adding meaning. Toss the throat-clearing too: “it goes without saying” and “it’s important to note” just add useless clutter to your otherwise good ideas.

9. Use signposts.

Readers get tired when they’re scrolling through a full page of text. Use headings, subheadings, bullets, and white space (that means keeping your paragraphs short!) to give their eyes a break as well as to organize your thoughts.

10. Proofread.

Before you publish anything, even if it’s just sending an email to your colleague, spend a minute reviewing it. Spellcheck isn’t infallible. I proof every document I write at least three times: twice in hard copy and once online. Your eyes won’t catch everything on a screen, so hard copy fills that gap. Another trick for online proofreading is to paste your text into a different file, then blow it up in a large font that you don’t usually use. I usually change the color of the text too. That way, I fool my brain into thinking the words are new, so it focuses more on what’s on the screen.

Bonus tip: Don’t use the semicolon.

Let’s face facts: 95 percent of you don’t know how to use it. And, even if you are using it correctly, it probably means your sentence is too long. Just get rid of it.

Can’t get enough suggestions on how to improve your writing? Let us know what help you need.

(More) tips to improve your content marketing

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Want to debate the merits of semicolons? Want us to help you write with or without them? Let’s talk.

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