Whether you’re writing a memo, a letter,
an article or a full-length novel, there are a few basic rules to keep in
mind that will help your message first to be read and then to be better
understood and accepted.
1. Never Be Boring
Your reader will forgive almost anything except you being
boring. They don’t have to agree with you, but they should at least be
intrigued. Make the reader care. Don’t be afraid to be “edgy.” Look at
every sentence and ask yourself, “Why will they care about this?”
2. Write in Short Sentences
The reader shouldn’t have to work hard to understand what
you’re saying. If they have to go back over a sentence because of poor
structure, it’s not their fault, it’s yours. Read what you’ve written
aloud or have someone else read it aloud to look for sentences that are
too long or convoluted.
3. Write TO the Reader
“you” often. Look for ways to eliminate or reduce “I” and “me.” Present
tense, second person is always best. It feels more to the reader like
you’re talking to THEM.
4. Go Active
active verbs as much as possible. They’re more engaging. They move the
reader along and take fewer words to get your message across. “John loves
Mary” is much more powerful than, “Mary is loved by John.”
5. Keep it Simple
The front page of The Wall Street Journal and all of USA
Today is written for the eighth grade reading level. Why should we be any
different? People aren’t interested in things they don’t understand. Make
your points quickly and succinctly. Make your words work and use as few of
them as possible. You want to use the right word, but make sure you’re
using it because it’s the right word and not just to show off your
vocabulary—or your new thesaurus.
6. Tell Stories
Facts tell and
stories sell. The best writers and speakers of the world have always been
good story tellers. Your own stories are the best. What you are sharing is
wisdom from your point of view and stories can illustrate this better than
7. Know Your Subject
Write on things on which you’ve earned the right to write.
Know 100 times more about your subject than you write about, but don’t
write about all of it. The more you know, the more confidence—and
This is the
radio station that everyone listens to. The call letters stand for What’s
in It For Me. People want to know what they’ll get out of what you’re
writing. Appeal to what they want.
9. Write Like You Talk
Or at least the way you’d LIKE to talk. Too many times, I
see people who are good verbal communicators try to put on a different air
in their writing. It doesn’t work. It’s much better to be
10. Paint Pictures
We think in pictures and should write in ways that create
these pictures in the mind of the reader. Be descriptive. Use examples.
Describe the unfamiliar by using some of the familiar. “Jennifer’s first
day at her new job reminded her of the freshness and unfamiliarity she
experienced on her first day of school.”
11. Sleep On it
It’s a rare individual who can sit down and write something
well at the first attempt. Any writing of import should be written and
then reviewed later—preferably at least a day later. Some things should be
edited several times over an extended period of time.
12. Write and Read Extensively
This advice is from Stephen King—a prolific writer. If you
want to be a good writer you have to do two things—read a lot and write a
lot. Enough said.
13. Break it Down
Where appropriate, use bullet points. Use them for summaries
or outlines. Think about someone who may only start out by scanning your
text. Let your bullet points draw the reader in.
A Few Added Points for Email
Keep your lines to 60-65 characters
maximum. A column that’s too wide taxes the eyes of the reader and
Keep paragraphs to no more than six
lines. Short paragraphs provide white space to the text. They break up
the page and make it appear less formidable to the reader. Like in music,
the space between the notes is as important as the notes themselves.
Don’t use all caps. Capital
letters are harder to read than upper and lower case. They also can be
perceived as SHOUTING! A little uppercase usage is ok—using all caps
doesn’t work and looks amateurish.