Day job aside, an extraordinary amount of my day consists of writing – emails, social media posts, letters, shopping lists, to do lists (otherwise known as the masochistic ritual of writing a long list of tasks purely for the pleasure of crossing them out). I’m sure I’m not alone.
UNESCO report that nearly 17% of the world’s adult population are illiterate, so if you’re reading this you’re among the lucky ones, but most of us still don’t get taught how to write really well. We’re taught vocabulary and grammar, but we don’t get taught how to write engaging content or easily convey a complex task.
Writing is such an integral part of everyday life that it’s easy to take it for granted, but the most interesting and enjoyable reads are often the ones that are hardest to write.
We all know how satisfying it is when, after hours of hard work, you manage to pen something that expresses exactly what you want to say and, more importantly, articulates those thoughts and feelings perfectly to the reader.
Good writing takes practice, it involves making mistakes (and learning from them) and, like any skill worth having, honing it takes a lifetime. I’ve been writing professionally for 16 years and I still try to improve my writing with every job I do.
Here are a few tips that I wish someone had shared with me when I first started copywriting:
- Value content, not word count. When it comes to writing, less is definitely more. If your college memories include a 20,000 word essay versus a looming deadline, you can be forgiven for thinking word count is king. Academia places a lot of value on this but, while it is valid for those purposes, word count should never be used as a measure of good writing. The best writing tells you what you need to know as painlessly as possible. Length will vary according to the subject and the audience, but never be tempted to pad your work.
- Don’t use long words to try and sound like you know more than you do. Write to inform, not to impress. Think about the books you read. The most enjoyable ones paint the scene in your mind without you even realising it’s happening. Then there are those with sentences you have to reread several times to understand. Which ones end up bound for the charity shop? Exactly.
- Think about what the reader wants to know, rather than what you want to say. Whatever it is we’re writing, we want the reader to be engaged. We all have stories we want to tell, but unless other people can relate to them, yours will be overlooked. Think about what it is you want the reader to take away from your writing and write with that one objective in mind.
- Ask questions. I often have to write about technical subjects that I have very little understanding of (flood attenuation anyone?). I could be lazy and simply write down what the engineers tell me, but that serves no one. The average person is unlikely to get beyond the first sentence without falling into a deep and heavy sleep. So I ask questions until I understand what it is I need to tell the reader. Writing has so many nuances and it can be very easy to completely change the meaning of a sentence with a slight rewording. Always make sure you know your subject and who you’re writing for.
- Don’t think that the first draft should be perfect. Anyone who declares their first draft of anything a masterpiece is probably delusional. Don’t spend painstaking hours creating your first draft. My first draft of anything is essentially the same as my dinner plate when I’m in a hurry – all the constituent parts are there, but it doesn’t look pretty. Just get everything you want to say on paper, in no particular order, and then worry about building something beautiful.