Years ago I led a workshop for adult learners all wanting to more clearly communicate their work. I flippantly made possibly the most profound statement of my 20-plus years as a professional communicator: If you can’t write, don’t; find somebody who can.
I am more convinced of the profundity of that statement 13 years later. Weak writing is the Achilles Heel of most communications efforts. In this age of brand journalism and content marketing, good writing is the backbone that should give organizations a lift over their competition, but poor writing torpedoes good strategy. Plainly stated, how well you write could mean the difference between success or failure.
Case in point. A client I’m working with recently read to me over the phone the executive summary of a business plan. She lost me about 40 words into the first sentence – and the period was still somewhere on the horizon. “But tech writing is supposed to sound complex,” she offered in defense. We have a great relationship so I felt free to be brutally honest. “Sorry,” I offered. “Muddled, complicated tech jargon crammed into a document full of run-on sentences does not equate to impressive-sounding writing.” Here’s a myth (especially for all the tech writers out there): If nobody can understand it, it must be important. Truth is, your readers are probably confused, not impressed.
So, if you can’t write yet are unwilling to find somebody who can help you, here are six guides to crafting copy that is easier to read and takes less of a toll on your readers.
1. Define your idea
There is nothing worse than reading copy that meanders through a number of topics making it difficult for readers to catch the point you’re trying to communicate. Define your idea, and stay on topic.
Decide what supporting information to include to ensure your main idea is understood and that supporting ideas flow in a logical manner. Some people outline (I do) to clarify direction. Outlining isn’t necessary, but if you struggle with organization, I recommend it. Bullet points scratched on the back of an envelop will suffice. The objective is organized copy that transports readers to your desired destination.
3. Word choice
It is impossible to know exactly how many words there are in the English language, but the Oxford Dictionary estimates around 250,000. In other words there is more than one – or a dozen – ways to say something. Pick words that clearly communicate your topic in interesting ways to the reader. Ask yourself: Is my objective to impress or inform? Your word choice provides the answer.
This is straightforward. It doesn’t matter which words you choose if they are dropped into poorly constructed sentences. Grammar is the foundation for clarity. Build well.
Have you ever read copy that runs on forever or fires at you like successive bursts from a Gatling Gun? Painful, all of it. Fluency entails interesting and varying sentence structures woven together in a seamless tapestry to carry a reader through your copy like an accomplished skier effortlessly glides down a virgin slope.
There is only one Hemingway, one Faulkner, one George Will, one Peggy Noonan – and my personal favorite – one Lewis Grizzard. There is also only one you. If you concentrate on the first five guides it increases the probability that you’ll connect with your voice and style. No, you probably won’t infuse your personality into technical writing, but you probably don’t talk like the copy most tech writers write. Most people speak in ways to be understood. Apply that idea to writing too.
Clear writing may not prevent a global disaster, but it may very well prevent a rebellion against your organization. Give readers copy that draw them toward you and not muddled copy that sends them to your competitors. Success or failure could be one copy block away.