Most people write badly because they can't think clearly. It follows that if you can think
clearly, you have a chance of writing well. These tips will help you put on paper exactly what you have in mind.
1. Keep in mind that the reader doesn't have much time. What you write must be clear on first reading. The shorter your paper, the better the chance it will be read.
2. Know where you are going - and tell the reader. Start with an outline to organise your argument.
Begin important paragraphs with topic sentences that tell what follows. Conclude with a summary paragraph.
An outline not only helps the reader; it keeps you from getting lost en route. Compile a list of all your points before you start.
3. Make what you write easy to read. For extra emphasis, underline entire sentences and number your points.
Put main points into indented paragraphs like this.
4. Short sentences and short paragraphs - are easier to read than long ones. Send telegrams, not essays.
5. Make your writing vigorous and direct. Wherever possible use active verbs, and avoid the passive voice.
Passive We are concerned that if this recommendation is turned down the brand's market share may be negatively affected.
Active We believe you must act on this recommendation to hold the brand's share.
6. Avoid clichés. Find your own words.
Cliché Turn over every rock for a solution Put it to the acid test Few and far between Last but not least Iron out
Direct Try hard Test thoroughly Few Last Remove
7. Avoid vague modifiers - such as 'very' and 'slightly.' Search for the word or phrase that precisely states your meaning.
Vague Very overspent Slightly behind schedule
Precise Overspent by R100,000 One day late
8. Use specific, concrete language. Avoid technical jargon. There's always a simple, down-to-earth word, which says the same thing as the show-off word.
Plain English Limits, boundaries Carry out Practical, workable To talk with Best Real, actual I think Facts, information Results
9. Find the right word. Know its precise meaning. Use your online dictionary and thesaurus. Don't confuse words like these:
It's is the contraction of it is. (It's the advertising of Standard Bank.)
Its is the possessive form of it and doesn't take an apostrophe. (Standard Bank and its advertising are remarkable.)
i.e. means that is.
e.g. means for example.
When you confuse words like these, your reader is justified in concluding that you don't know any better.
10. Don't make spelling mistakes. When in doubt, check your online dictionary. Your Spellchecker should also be running continuously. Just make sure it's set to English, and not American English. There's a big difference. [Editor: Don't be totally reliant on the Spellchecker, however. Check, for instance, that "shipping can expect rough seas" is not rendered as "shipping can expect rough sees".]
If your writing is careless, the reader may reasonably doubt the thoroughness of your thinking.
11. Don't overwrite or over-state. No more words than necessary. Take the time to boil down your points.
12. Get to the point. Don't beat around the bush. Say what you think - in simple, clear sentences. Write confidently.
13. State things as simply as you can. Use familiar words and uncomplicated sentences.
14. Handle numbers consistently. Newspapers generally spell out numbers for ten and under, use numerals for 11 and up.
Don't write K when you mean thousand, or M when you mean a million. The reader may not know this code. Write R5,000 - not R5K. Write R7,000,000 (or R7 million) - not R7M.
15. Strike out needless words. Always go through your first draft once with the sole purpose of deleting all unnecessary words, phrases, and sentences.
Many pieces of writing can be improved by deleting entire paragraphs, and sometimes even whole pages.
16. Be concise, but readable. Terseness is a virtue, if not carried to extremes. Don't leave out words. Write full sentences, and make them count.
17. Be brief, simple and natural. Don't write, 'The reasons are fourfold.' Write, 'There are four reasons.'
Don't start sentences with 'importantly.' Write, 'The important point is...'
Don't write 'hopefully' when you mean 'I hope that.' 'Hopefully' means 'in a hopeful manner.' Its common misuse annoys a great many literate people.
18. Don't write like a lawyer or a bureaucrat. 'Re' is legalese meaning 'in the matter of' and is never necessary.
The slash-as in and/or is bureaucratese. Don't write. 'We'll hold the meetings on Monday and/or Tuesday.' Write, 'We'll hold the meeting on Monday or Tuesday - or both days, if necessary.'
19. Never be content with your first draft. Rewrite, with an eye toward simplifying and clarifying. Rearrange. Revise. Above all, cut.
For every major document, let time elapse between your first and second drafts - at least overnight. Then come at it with a questioning eye and a ruthless attitude.
20. Have somebody else look over your draft. When writing an important document or speech submit a draft to colleagues for editing and comment.
James Hurford | Copywriter | Trainer | Coach | Owner of Passion - the copywriting company.
At Passion we specialise in copywriting in plain language for the financial services sector. With over 25 years of experience working for top international companies, we bring a vast amount of knowledge and copywriting expertise to every client we work with.
Nice article Jamie! Simple, basic common sense about communicating in writing. I wish these 20 points could be taught in every high school classroom and to every single tertiary student in their first year at college or university. Posted on 16 Aug 2012 16:26
So glad you included the jargon/plain English in point 8. You left out my favourite nonsensical jargon: 'going forward' - whatever happened to 'in future' or 'from now on'?? Posted on 26 Aug 2012 16:20
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