There are plenty of folks happy to tell you how to write better, just as any doctor will tell you to “eat right and exercise.” But changing your writing (or eating) habits only happens when you understand why you do what you do. I can help you with that.
That proposal or email you wrote must now compete for attention with Facebook and the Huffington Post. Here’s how to compete more effectively, and why you’re not doing it already. (The wall chart for these is at the bottom of the post.)
1 Write shorter.
Why it matters. Readers are impatient and will give up on your blog post, email, or document before you’ve made your point. Every extra word makes readers antsy.
How to fix it. Edit. Delete your “warming up” text and start with the main point. Cull extraneous detail and repetition. Work as if each word you eventually publish or send will cost you $10.
2 Shorten your sentences.
Why it matters. Long sentences make readers work too hard to figure out your meaning.
How to fix it. Break sentences down into bite-size ideas. Then delete what you don’t need. Think Hemingway, not Dickens.
3 Rewrite passive voice.
Why it matters. Passive voice sentences conceal who is acting and create uneasiness.
How to fix it. Figure out who the actor in the sentence is and make it the subject.
4 Eliminate weasel words.
Why it matters. Words like “generally” and “most” make your writing sound weak and equivocal.
How to fix it. Delete the weasel words, then read the resulting statement. If it’s too bold, write the strongest, clearest statement you can to take its place. (If no bold statement applies, you have nothing to say, so delete the sentence.)
5 Replace jargon with clarity.
Why it matters. Jargon makes your reader feel stupid. Unless they’re an insider, they can’t figure out your meaning.
How to fix it. Imagine you’re talking to your mom (unless your mom is an expert in your subject; if so, imagine you’re talking to your high school history teacher). Explain what you mean in plain English. If using a technical term would actually make things clearer or shorter, define it first.
6 Cite numbers effectively.
Why it matters. Used properly, statistics can back up your point.
How to fix it. When citing a statistic, include the context (compared to what?). And statistics shorn of sources are meaningless; “It is estimated that” might as well say “I made this number up.” Here’s a proper way to use a statistic: “Forrester Research estimates that by 2017, 2.4 billion people will own smartphones, or around one third of the world’s population.”
7 Use “I,” “we,” and “you.”
Why it matters. Taken together, these pronouns create a relationship between the writer (“I”), his organization (“we”), and the reader (“you.”)
How to fix it. Imagine the reader. Then rewrite using the word “you.”
8 Move key insights up.
Why it matters. You only have a few sentences to get the reader’s attention. If you boldly state your key point at or near the top, they’ll stick around to see if you can prove it.
How to fix it. Force yourself to start with a bold statement. If you just can’t get in this habit, write whatever you need to warm up to stating your thesis, then delete the warmup.
9 Cite examples.
Why it matters. Text without examples is dull and not credible. Text with examples comes alive.
How to fix it. For a piece of any length, plan to spend half the writing time doing research first.
10 Give us some signposts.
Why it matters. If you’re writing anything longer than a page, people want to know what they’re in for.
How to fix it. After you’ve stated your main thesis, write this: “Here’s how I’ll explain this.” Then include a few short sentences or a numbered list. It’s that easy!