10 Ways to Make Your Writing More Exciting - dummies

10 Ways to Make Your Writing More Exciting

By Natalie Canavor

Yesterday, captive audiences were the way of the world and how business worked. We were obliged to read the boss’s memo, watch television commercials and take most of our news and information from a limited number of resources.

Today, choices are infinite and genuine must-read documents are rare. Readership is earned, not taken for granted. Everything you write must attract the readers you want and maintain their interest.

Write to readers’ interests and concerns

Nothing fascinates readers more than themselves and their own concerns. Offer a solution to their problems, and they stick to your writing like glue. First identify those interests and concerns. Invest thought and perhaps some research into the persons or group you wish to reach. Then look at what you offer through your audience’s eyes and align with their self-interest. If you can’t do this, you may be aiming at the wrong audience.

Don’t bury the lead! Be sure to instantly tell your chosen readers why they should care. Use your headline or subject line for this, depending on the medium, and reinforce the idea in your opening sentences. Follow through and deliver what you promise in concise language with a good flow to keep readers with you.

Create messages that read fast

Folks in the 21st century are an impatient lot. If we need to figure out a message’s meaning, we usually stop reading. If we find it slow going, we often move on to something else demanding our attention.

Aim to streamline everything you write to be easily understood and absorbed.

  • For print communication, build documents with short basic words, short sentences that average 12 to 18 words, and short paragraphs of three to five sentences.

  • For online media, make sentences and paragraphs even briefer. Alternate the type of sentence – basically, short versus long – to achieve an easy rhythm.

Omit every word and thought that doesn’t contribute to your message. Edit even unassuming material like emails to reflect these guidelines, and read them aloud to find anything wordy and awkward.

Stick to a theme when communicating something complex

You can easily get lost in detail and multiple issues when you’re assembling a complex document like a proposal, promotional flyer, or website. Avoid the muddle by figuring out the heart of your message before you write.

The core of a message, or theme, can be perfectly straightforward in business communication. For example, ‘I recommend that this company opens an office in Shanghai.’ Once you’re clear on your bottom line, brainstorm what the decision maker needs to know. Perhaps,

Why Shanghai now?

Projected benefits

Possible risks/experience of competitors

Nature of investment and anticipated return

Process, timeframe and personnel

Put the supporting points in a logical order and then write to each subhead or section. The big bonus is that readers can easily follow your argument and absorb the big picture, plus whatever level of detail interests them. They may not agree with your recommendation, but your approach definitely gets you a fair hearing.

Cut the hype and go for the proof

Nothing annoys people more than vague claims of superiority, whether of an organization, product, service, or individual. Today people want evidence: statistics, research, or sometimes anecdotes that substantiate claims. To market anything successfully, narrow in on what truly sets it apart and build your business message on that.

Don’t depend on empty hyperbole that centers on adjectives and adverbs, such as: ‘ground-breaking innovation,’ ‘most popular gizmo in the west’ or ‘revolutionary new system.’

A quick test of whether your writing consists of meaningless exaggeration is to ask yourself whether your statement can, with minor adaptation, apply equally to totally different products or services.

People trust facts. They don’t believe, ‘Our customers are always delighted.’ But ‘We have a 97 per cent retention rate’ is convincing. Look for advantage points you can quantify or prove.

Don’t tiptoe: Tell people what you want up front

Most messages ask for something. What the writer wants may be simple, like ‘Take note of the meeting date’ or ‘File your forms properly.’ Or the request may be more significant, like ‘Read my application’ or ‘We need vendors to fix our software system.’ Respect your audience’s time by stating what you want at the top, rather than making people dig for it.

For email the subject line and opening together should clearly state what you want – think of these elements as ways of telling readers why they should care. Then let them make up their own minds whether to be interested. A message about a meeting date, for example, does its job by being specific: ‘March 7: ABC Meeting on Pension Plan Cuts’ works as a subject line. The lead sentence may follow with, ‘Come to an open meeting . . . ’

Write to one individual or construct an example of a group

When you write to a particular person, your writing improves if you visualize what she’s like and systematically analyze her relevant characteristics. If you’re asking for a new computer, for example, considering your boss’s computer savvy and attitude toward technology helps you determine how to present your request.

Customizing messages when you don’t know the person you’re writing to, or when you address a group, is much harder. Many documents are directed at an unknown number of strangers, and all online material is as well. In these instances a good technique is to ‘construct’ a composite person to represent your target audience.

You probably know a great deal about your audience to begin with. Add some analysis by asking yourself questions. What do most people who hold that position care about? What are their likely problems? Which benefit of my service do they most value? The more you can flesh out your construct, the better you’re able to connect with the people your profile represents.

Absorb the spirit of your target’s own communication

When answering a job posting, a grant application or request for proposals, read what the organization itself has written at least five times. Look for repeat words, which signal the organization’s priorities. Look for extra-specific or long descriptions of particular assets they want, which can indicate areas where the company has problems. The relative amount of space given to various credentials can tell you similar things.

And notice the language: Formal? Casual? Technical? One person probably wrote the document or listing, but it nevertheless represents the organization’s general atmosphere and way of thinking. Reflecting back that style is usually a smart move. Use the same keywords as well, which demonstrates that you are on the same wavelength. Supplement what you glean from the posting with some online research. Most organizations fully express their personality on their websites and tell you a lot about their goals.

If you’re filling out a grant application, take special care to figure out the organization’s own mission and speak to that. Non-profits or government agencies rarely fund anything other than projects that fulfil their own missions.

Use stories, anecdotes and examples to liven up your words

Everyone loves a good story or anecdote. They’re a lot more fun than dry statistics and descriptions. They’re far more memorable, too. Stories and anecdotes are especially useful for speeches and other oral presentations. They also make many forms of business writing more persuasive, engaging, and lively.

To find stories, scan your own experience and history for stories that align with the basic message you want to deliver. Anecdotes – short accounts of something that happened – are easier to come by. When they’re not, in preparing a speech, for example, it’s perfectly legit to ask friends and colleagues to donate an anecdote that is relevant in any way – to the locale where you’re delivering your talk, the industry involved, or a national or local event. Or, focus on using examples to illustrate your points – how someone used your product or service, for instance.

Never tell stories or anecdotes at anyone else’s expense or any that can be interpreted as unflattering to a group – they’ll work against the impression you want to make.

Whether in print or online, give it air

Readability and reader happiness require a good amount of empty space. Jammed in copy is a turnoff. Stay concise and use far fewer words rather than cram tons of words into every available corner.

Breathability is one of the reasons why short paragraphs and bulleted lists work well – they put air in between the word chunks. Images, graphs and charts also provide welcome breaks for the eye, as do subheads and other graphic devices.

Onscreen writing requires even more white (or other color) space. For physical reasons, onscreen reading is harder for people, so they’re even less patient when they look at websites, blogs, and other electronic messaging systems. Notice that when a message is condensed into un-paragraphed formats on small devices like smart phones it becomes uninviting and even harder to read. So, consciously build in air wherever you can, for both short and long documents, whatever the medium.

Invest in understanding other cultures

Recognize that people are different, even if they write to each other in business English and even if they watch some of the same movies and like the same rock stars and fashions. Your counterparts in other countries have genuinely different filters for how they view the world and what they expect from their interactions with other people.

To show someone who lives in a different culture that you are on her wavelength, or even that you’re making an effort, find out how business people in that country prefer to be addressed. You might look into what ‘small talk’ is appropriate. You might consider using a phrase or two in the person’s own language.

Respect the effort it takes for a non-native English speaker to communicate with you. In return, make every effort to write in simple, direct, clear language that is as idiom- and jargon-free as possible.