Writing doesn’t come easily for many people. But it’s a skill that’s important in most lines of work. Clear, concise prose is essential, whether you’re preparing an internal company memo, creating a proposal for a client, emailing your boss about a concern or compiling a newsletter. And good writing is a skill that isn’t likely to be replaced by automation, so learning how to do it well will serve you throughout your career.
At Provident, several of us are former journalists. We live and breathe the written word every day, so it can be hard to explain how to do it. Still, let me give it a try.
Here are some key tips, in no specific order. Use them as a checklist whenever you sit down to write anything, no matter the audience:
Short sentences and paragraphs. Ernest Hemingway isn’t considered one of the world’s great writers for nothing. He was a master of short sentences and spare, unadorned prose. If a sentence is running much beyond two lines, it’s too long. Break it up into smaller sentences. And paragraphs should rarely be more than three or four short sentences. Even one-word sentences and paragraphs can be effective. See?
Avoid bogging down your sentences with all sorts of clauses within sentences. It makes it too difficult for the reader to follow your main point. Break them out as their own sentences if they’re necessary at all. Your sentences should never be riddled with em-dashes and commas — although they’re fine when used sparingly or for emphasis, as you can see in this sentence!
Use simple words. So: Use, not utilize. Help, not facilitate. Start, not commence.
Cut out meaningless filler and fluff words. So not: It was very clear that the proposal was rather boring and terribly over-written. But: The proposal was boring and over-written. The word very, incidentally, should be avoided at all costs.
Acronyms are the devil. Use as few as them as possible, unless they are household names like the RCMP or the UN. If you must use them, spell them out in full on first reference. But keep in mind: It’s totally OK if you repeat the name of an obscure organization or concept in your writing rather than forcing the reader to scroll back up to recall what the acronym stands for.
Avoid parentheses. If it’s not important enough to mention out of parentheses, cut it out. And joke-y, cutesy parentheticals are almost always annoying for the reader.
So too are puns. I unsubscribed from a newsletter once that used a series of marijuana puns the day after legalization. It was a litany of corny dad jokes that tarnished the news outlet’s gravitas and brand. Don’t do it.
Avoid jargon and buzzwords. The actual definition of buzzword makes clear why you should avoid them: “Important-sounding usually technical words or phrases often of little meaning, used chiefly to impress laymen.” Why cause your readers to roll their eyes or hunt for an online dictionary?
Avoid the passive voice in favour of the active voice. So not: The employees’ questions are always answered by the HR team. But: The HR team always answers the employees’ questions.
Lay off the adverbs. Cut out those -ly words throughout; they’re seldom needed.
Don’t use a long line of words that mean the same thing. “Her writing is clear, comprehensible, intelligible and understandable.” Pick one.
Don’t front-load your sentences so that the reader has to wade through extraneous details to get to the point. So not: “After years of struggling with his illness and embarking upon a series of homeopathic therapies in the hope of improving his health, he was hit by a truck and died.” But: “He was hit by a truck and died after years of struggling with his illness. He had embarked upon a series of homeopathic therapies in the hopes of improving his health.”
Don’t ramble and repeat yourself. Stick to the point. Ask yourself repeatedly as you write what your point actually is. Imagine explaining it out loud to your grandmother. Avoid going off on tangents. You don’t want to be the garrulous person at the party shunned by all the other guests.
Don’t over-write. Put your reader first, and yourself in the background. Ego writing is actually a thing. So focus on the message, not your own need to flex your expertise.
There’s nothing wrong with the word “said.” There’s no need to use words like claimed, insisted, asserted, opined, declared, stated, pronounced. And, in fact, some of those words have negative connotations (“claim” and ”insist” in particular). Just stick to “said.”
Writing isn’t easy. I always suggest to people struggling with it to take a walk. When you come back to your work, you’ll have a clearer head and notice problems you didn’t see before. Then you can trim your sentences and paragraphs, rewrite for clarity and anticipate your editor’s questions. Cut out the repetition, fluff words, excess clauses, adverbs and any rambling. Don’t give up and tell yourself your editor will fix it.
I’ve spent many years copy-editing. I’ve reworked the prose of everyone from young journalists just out of school to lifelong academics who’ve never met a 50-word sentence they didn’t like and tech geeks who speak and write in a language few understand.
And so here’s another bit of advice: Copy-edit your colleagues, because nothing turns you into a better writer than toiling to improve someone else’s work. So copy-edit your team members and have them copy-edit you. Make note of how you’re edited, particularly when something in your prose is consistently edited out, rewritten or misunderstood. Learn from the edits!
Above all else, remember this: If your editor doesn’t get it, assume no one else will. Everyone needs an editor, who is essentially the first reader of your piece. Their questions and suggestions will make your writing stronger.