Words. Sometimes they come easily and other times, they don’t come out right at all. While chances are the ones most plagued by this cycle are writers, all positions require at least some form of writing in day-to-day tasks. Whether your tasks include emails, company updates, social media posts, long-form writing or more, here are four tips to help you craft prose like a pro.
1. Get It On Paper
A blank page is an opportunity to get your message across, but it also serves as an obstacle if you’re too focused on trying to say the right thing. In the words of New York Times best-selling author Austin Kleon, “Forget the nouns altogether. Do the verbs.” Focusing on the process of writing itself rather than the end result is the perfect way to tell perfectionism to take a hike. As author James Thurber and other writers over the years have advised, “Don’t get it right. Get it written.” So, whether it’s an email that’s sitting in drafts or a bio about yourself that you’ve been avoiding writing, start now and edit later.
2. Vary Your Sentences
In the midst of writing, it’s easy to keep adding more to a sentence until you proofread and realize it’s a run-on. The opposite can be true as well and the message may read like a text exchange with a teenager: short, choppy and direct. The trick is to refine and balance these two scenarios together by offering a concoction of short and longer phrases mixed together. Gary Provost refers to this process as creating “music” in his book 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, which reads:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony…”
Incorporating this “musical” technique into blogs, press releases, emails and more makes the text more inviting and fun to read! If you’ve picked up a bag of Bugles chips recently, you can see this technique in action. It says: “Who Should Eat Bugles? Anyone. Hockey moms and referees. Father and son curling teams. Book Clubbers. Landlubbers. Even party sound dubbers. Band leaders. Lead singers. Lion timers. All-night gamers. Nine out of ten doctors. And everyone.”
In addition to using humor and rhyme, the Bugles description features a varied cadence of words broken up by periods to bring attention to each phrase. With this technique, their product description is as crisp and memorable as the chips themselves.
3. Cut Unnecessary Words
Your first draft is done! There’s words on screen and you’re itching to send it off and be done with it. Before that can happen, though, you must always proofread. A variation of Kevin’s theory from The Office, one great proofreading tactic is to seek out and eliminate words that don’t serve a purpose or add value. In his book On Writing Well, author Willliam Zinsser hammers this point in. “With each rewrite I try to make what I have written tighter, stronger and more precise, eliminating every element that’s not doing useful work,” he states. This can include:
- Redundant phrases. Sometimes we’re so used to saying them, we don’t realize we’re actually repeating ourselves. For example: “absolutely certain,” “basic fundamentals,” “passing fad,” or “unexpected surprise.”
- The word “that.” If you can cut this word without the sentence losing it’s meaning, you don’t need it. For instance, “We love the design that you came up with.”
- Words that portray uncertainty, like “just” or “perhaps.” Eliminating these strengthens your voice and can portray confidence. For example, “I have a few ideas we could discuss,” is stronger than saying, “I just have a few ideas that perhaps we could discuss.”
By eliminating wordiness, you decrease the risk of losing readers’ attention and make sure that every word serves a purpose.
4. Read It Out Loud
A great way to implement tips #2 and #3 is to read your draft out loud. If your content writing is full of industry terms that your audience may not be familiar with, define them or consider rephrasing so it’s easy to understand. This exercise allows you to hear the flow of your words, recognize which ones may be able to be cut and catch any typos. It’s also an opportunity to ensure your personality or brand voice is present in the copy. Whatever your position, if you have the opportunity to be yourself in your copy – do that. It will come out more genuine when you read your own work and when others do, too.
For more tips on how to get the most from your copy and your copywriting team, tune into our upcoming episode of The 19: Entrepreneur Edition podcast. Subscribe to our newsletter below to have it delivered straight to your inbox!