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By Michael Angier

16 Tips for Being a Better Writer

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
Use “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
Use 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 anything else.

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 credibility—you’ll have.

8. WIFM
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 conversational.

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 Writing

Keep your lines to 60-65 characters maximum. A column that’s too wide taxes the eyes of the reader and appears overwhelming.

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.  

 

 

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Last Updated 10/10/2005