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Seven steps to superb online writing

In an email, you have 15 seconds to hook your reader. Only 15 seconds. Then they either close up and move on, or skip past all of your beautifully crafted paragraphs to the end, to find out what you really want from them. And this, even in cases where they've requested contact from you. Fifteen seconds is all you've got.
Seven steps to superb online writing

What's more, power cuts and inconvenience have made your readers more impatient and more dismissive of your message and the time it'll take to read it. So the goal is to write emails that are simple, understandable and compelling. Luckily for you, there are seven easy ways to achieve this. Read 'em quick before the power goes…

1. Keep it short 'n tight

Do you sometimes write things like, "It is a matter of deep regret to us that you cast a negative vote on the appropriation of funds for construction of the new building" when you really mean, "We're sorry you voted against the new building"?

What makes us write in this complicated, ‘official' style? Usually the misguided belief that we're supposed to. But readers have a difficult time understanding writing that is unnecessarily complex. If they have to work too hard for meaning, the writing is ineffective, and the results are miscommunication and wasted time for everyone.

It's your job to make reading easy. So don't try to impress readers; write to express, not to impress. Avoid the use of too many words or big words where small words say the same thing: medication for medicine, utilise for use, purchase for buy. Cut anything that's not essential and say what you have to in the fewest words possible.

Here are some tips for writing short and tight:

  1. Choose plain, common words over long, unusual ones.
  2. Use short sentences instead of long sentences.
  3. Avoid convoluted phrases readers must think about to understand.

Old-fashioned language is rife in electronic media. We see expressions like ‘Attached hereto please find' or ‘Should you have any enquiries, please do not hesitate'. The list is endless. But you'd never use ‘hereafter' or ‘forthwith' in speaking, so don't in writing. There are simpler, more user-friendly ways to say what you want to say.

2. Catch and kill the evil adjective

Mark Twain wrote: ‘When you catch an adjective - kill it.' He was right. There are three instances in which adjectives should be caught and killed:

Weak adjectives, like ‘remarkable company', don't tell us enough. What makes the company remarkable? Its size? Profits? Staff? Transparency? Training? Be specific.

Unnecessary adjectives, like those used in ‘blue sky', ‘green grass' and ‘sandy beach', are redundant. Only tell us if the sky isn't blue, otherwise we'll assume that it is.

Adjective overload is a sin against writing, because too many adjectives in a row dilute one another and weaken your image. ‘An unforgettable event is better than ‘an unforgettable, special and unique event.

If you're unsure, use this test: by removing the adjective, do you alter the meaning? If not, follow Mark Twain's advice.

3. Avoid annoying buzzwords

Eavesdrop on any corporate conversation these days, and you'll find it riddled with words and phrases like ‘the big picture', ‘leveling the playing field', ‘benchmark', ‘best practice', ‘in the pipeline', ‘strategic', ‘on the same page', ‘go the extra mile' and more.

In fact, a US company recently commissioned a study to find the most annoying corporate phrases, and here are the top five:

  • At the end of the day
  • Solution
  • Thinking outside the box
  • Synergy
  • Paradigm

4. Stick to ‘The Rule of Focus'

Your electronic copy should speak to one audience only. Trying to cover too many variances in your audience dilutes the power of speaking one-on-one with your reader. So strive to make each email as personal and conversational as possible.

One message means: don't try to communicate different messages in your copy. Imagine reading a story that goes off in too many directions. When this happens, you lose focus and fail to capture the essence of the core message - and often stop reading because it's just too confusing. So focus on only one message, and drive it home.

One outcome means: ask the reader to do one thing — and, if at all possible, one thing only. Respond with more info on their needs and wants. Tell you how they heard about your company. Commit to a purchase… But only one of these at a time.

Remember: a confused reader will never do what you want him to, since the confused mind always says ‘No!'

5. Write a compelling subject line

For every email, write a customised subject line that will make the reader want to open it and read on. The subject line offers a very small space in which to make a very large impact, but if it is relevant or informative enough, readers are more likely to react:

  1. The subject should tell the reader what the e-mail is about in clear, simple language.
  2. Even if the product, service or message is fun and exciting, the subject should not rely on quirky or jargon-filled language to invite the reader in.
  3. The subject should hint at the benefit the reader can gain by opening the email.

6. Feel free to use a PS

After reading the opening line of an email, most readers will scan the remainder of the message. Psychology and a related discipline called neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP, teach us that the postscript is a convention most readers will recognise. For this reason, it can be an effective way to highlight a reminder or a particular point of interest.

7. Get clever at formatting


  1. Always organise your content so that the reader knows what to look at, in what order and what to do next. Big, bold headlines and numbers are very helpful in this regard.

  2. Write in bite-size pieces. If your document is one mass, it looks like hard work, so break it down into sections. Here's a tip in terms of length: the longer the document, the longer the sections - and vice versa.
  3. Start almost every paragraph with a sub-heading. Everyone reads them. Condense your most important point down to a meaningful sub-heading of seven words, maximum.
  4. Bulleted and numbered lists absolutely grab attention in e-mails, and also help to break up long reams of text, so condense important items into short, catchy points.
  5. Never write in caps. We read caps at one-third of the normal speed, which is why it looks like shouting.
  6. Your email should have an impact similar to that of a billboard on a highway. All of the content should be absolutely relevant and focused on getting the client to ACT.

In the end, be guided by Mark Amidon, who said: “Language is the means of getting an idea from my brain into yours without surgery.” So if you don't want your reader to bang his head against a wall, keep your writing quick, keep it clear and make sure it's just like a mini-skirt: short enough to warrant a glance and tight enough to have an impact.

About Tiffany Markman

Tiffany Markman (www.tiffanymarkman.co.za) is a freelance print and web copywriter. Over the last nine years, she's worked on print and online copy for over 90 clients - and she writes 30-40 electronic messages a day. Contact Tiffany on +27 82 492 1715 or email .

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