There was a lot to do.
It’s not that it was terrible, but it didn’t flow well. There was lots of detail that was meaningless to the majority of the audience. The story moved, confusingly, from the middle to the beginning to the end. The personal pronouns were inconsistent so you weren’t really sure who had done what.
I know the writer well. He is well spoken and articulate, but all that was lost in the outpouring from head to paper. In an attempt to make the story more exciting and interesting (which wasn’t needed), the story had become overcomplicated.
The lucky ones among us get to go to school and learn how to read and write. In that process, we’re often encouraged to write creatively, but rarely to write simply.
When writing translates to difficult reading, simplicity is almost always what’s needed:
1. Know your reader. Once you know who they are, you can ask yourself what it is they need to be told. My audience for this blog is business people who want to improve their copywriting. Knowing that helps me stay focussed.
2. Make sure the story follows the headline. The urge to get overly creative with headlines is strong, but resist.
Your headline should be attention grabbing, but only for the right audience. There’s little point in attracting lots of interest if your audience is fairly niche. Readers will quickly move on and you may bypass your actual audience entirely.
Write a headline that appeals to your audience and don’t be afraid to be specific.
3. Stick to the point. Be objective – does the reader really need to know all the detail you’ve included? If it’s not relevant or interesting, don’t include it.
4. Keep your language simple. This is not the time or place to demonstrate your vast knowledge of the English language. I was once told to ‘write to inform, not to impress’. It remains one of the most valuable lessons I learned. Which of the following makes you want to join the speaker?
We’re convening in the nearby drinking establishment for a beverage.
We’re meeting in the local pub for a pint.
5. Lead the reader through the story. Guide them through the story from start to finish, including as much interesting (and relevant) detail as possible.
Try to avoid words that readers may not be familiar with, but if you have to, make sure they’re explained in layman’s terms.
Use words that help your readers picture what you’re saying (the customer broke into a wide smile).
When faced with a choice of words to use, opt for the one everyone knows. Say office, not facilities. Say rain, not weather conditions. Say meeting, rather than cross-departmental brainstorming session (please!).
6. Keep sentences short. But try to vary the length. Too many short sentences makes reading dull. See what I mean?
15 to 20 words is a considered a good average. If your sentence gets too long, it can become muddled and difficult to follow. If your reader has to keep rereading the sentence, you’ve lost all hope of getting your point across.
7. Stay active! The active verb is a writer’s gift – embrace it.
‘The car hit the tree at full speed.’ That’s active writing. ‘The tree was hit by the car at full speed.’ That’s not and the impact (pardon the pun) is gone.
8. Every word matters. Once we’re clear of university and the dreaded essay word count, there’s no need to pad your work (and you shouldn’t really do it in the first place). Stay focussed, keep it direct and interesting.
As a writer, your mission (if you choose to accept it – sorry, couldn’t resist) is to transport the story from the paper to the readers mind. If your story is good, there is no need to overcomplicate the telling of it. Keep it simple and you can’t go too far wrong.