"Writing well, like singing well, takes practice, skill and a discerning ear."
By David P. Kowal
It’s true that anyone can write – in the same sense that anyone can sing. Writing well, like singing well, takes practice, skill and a discerning ear.
Unfortunately, many people in the business world write off key without realizing it. They produce a cacophony of overused words like “quality,” “solution” and “service,” and mistake it for a concerto. Like the tone-deaf singer at church, they attempt to make up in volume what they lack in skill.
Can they be saved? A poor writer is unlikely to turn into a Pavarotti of print, but the following rules can give anyone’s writing a tune up:
Identify your audience. How you write depends on whom you’re writing to. How well educated are your readers? What is their profession? How old are they?
Identify your message. To focus your message, write down three points you’d like to get across. It may help to prepare an outline.
Never assume. Start with the premise that your readers know nothing about what you’re writing about. You may be an expert on the subject, but your readers are not.
Omit needless words. Unnecessary words are dead wood. Prune them. Eliminate phrases such as, “I believe,” “I think,” “as you know,” “in the context of,” “the fact that,” “in order to” and “with respect to.” Put every word to work. Review your writing word-by-word and terminate slackers.
Finesse your lead. You have three seconds to catch a reader’s attention, so get right to the point. Take the “so what” test. Pretend you’re someone else and read your first paragraph. If you find yourself saying “so what,” so will your readers.
Don’t write chronologically. Most business writing should use the “inverted pyramid” approach, putting the most important information first.
Show, don’t tell. Writing that rising taxes are tough on business owners, for example, is less effective than writing about specific businesses that are failing because of rising taxes.
Use the active voice. When the subject of the verb is performing an action, the verb is in the active voice. When the subject of the verb is the recipient of the action, the verb is in the passive voice. “The house was sold by a real estate agent” is passive. “The real estate agent sold the house” is active. Like salt in the diet, passive voice is sometimes needed, but use it sparingly.
Avoid clichés, jargon and tired language. Clichés are to writing as “have a nice day” is to the spoken word.
Don’t use long words when short words will do. Which is clearer: “Use short words” or “Attenuate words you’ve utilized that have three syllables or more?”
Choose the right word. Don’t use “which” when you mean “that,” “effect” when you mean “affect,” “less” when you mean “fewer,” and “farther” when you mean “further.” Some errors of style are so ingrained in our language, we accept them out of habit. For example, few would write “an horse,” yet most write “an historical” instead of “a historical.”
Hire a professional. Potential customers will judge your business by how you present it in writing. You’re not likely to lose customers because of run-on sentences on your Web site, but a professional writer can make a stronger written case for your business than you can.
Also consider the opportunity costs of writing for yourself. What is an hour of your time worth and how long will it take for you to write your own marketing materials?
We all hit an occasional off note, but following these rules will keep your writing in the right key.
David P. Kowal is President of Kowal Communications, Inc. of Northboro, Mass.