Anne-Marie Chisnall | April 23, 2020
We put the call out to our team to answer this big question about writing. Here’s what they said.
Write from freedom instead of fear. Treat writing as your friend, not your enemy. At school I feared the blank sheet of paper. It gave too much scope for failure, particularly in exam essays. Since then, I’ve discovered that the better you feel about writing, the better you write. And like any relationship, you need to keep working on how you write.
Try tackling the hard writing tasks first. Make your words memorable for the right reasons. Don’t let fear paralyse your thinking and stop you writing that first word. After all, that’s why we have the word ‘draft’. You get to polish your writing in private before revealing it to the world.
Your audience is your North Star. Keep looking to it for guidance.
Remember who your audience is. This was a revelation when I started writing content. If the people I’m writing for couldn’t understand me, my work was essentially useless.
First, figure out who your audience is. Then, as you write, regularly ask yourself whether you’re writing for them. This will lead to other questions: Will my colleague have time to read five paragraphs of background information before they find the task I’m assigning them? Will my customers know what I’m on about when I give them the detailed modalities of leveraging franchise enablement?
If the answer is ‘No’, you know what to do.
I’d love it if people copied and pasted their final paragraph and put it first. Often the last paragraph of an email or a report is where the writing’s message crystallises. It’s where you see the main message in its most clear, perfect, final form. If people made their last paragraph their first one, the world would be a better place!
Be a rebel! Forget about trying to impress people with the size of your vocabulary or the number of pages you can smash out. Think about what you want to say first; think about who will be reading it; and write it for them in plain words. No more, no less. Leave out your ‘prior to’ and ‘subsequent to’.
And ‘before’ you know it, people will be ‘after’ your hot writerly skills.
I have a party trick, one that gets put to good use most days. From across the room, and almost without even reading it, I can spot when a document lacks a clear purpose.
Make sure you know the purpose of what you’re writing and why your reader needs to read it. Check that you’ve made any call to action or next steps really clear. That way, your reader knows the outcome you want or the result you’re expecting.
I roughly calculate that 9 out of 10 documents we see in the course of our work don’t have a clear purpose. Challenge your colleagues to see if they can reach 10 out of 10 for writing 100% purposeful documents that leave the reader in no doubt about the ‘why’. I’d love my party trick to become obsolete.
I firmly believe structure is the best bang-for-your-buck writing fix. And an effective structure puts the most important things first.
So my go-to fix is to add a summary. It’s a fix that works for everything from shortish emails to long documents. Simply scan what you’ve written for key points and ‘asks’, gather them together, and knit them into a crisp summary.
Without a summary, you have an end-of-the-evening gloopy cheese fondue, full of lost and soggy globs of bread. With a summary, you have the perfect gruyère and parmesan soufflé: a crisp crust, packed with flavour, and neither too heavy nor too light.
(If the mention of a cheese soufflé has set your taste-buds tingling, we recommend Felicity Cloake’s carefully researched recipe)
Use lots of terrific headings that capture the meaning of what’s beneath. You’ll transform your reader’s experience and save them tons of time. They’ll more easily understand what you’ve written, and find the information they want.
Use a long phrase or mini-sentence for each heading. Don’t say:
This heading doesn’t outline what’s to come. Instead, try:
Introduction: Findings on our research into plastics use
See? Now you know what the document’s about.
That heading is eight words long. That’s good — go for four to ten words. On paper, if it wraps over two lines, that’s fine. On a phone, more lines is fine. And use headings often — every two to four paragraphs — so your reader doesn’t lose their place.
I adore good verbs — they drive action to help messages ring true and clear. Choosing strong verbs can revolutionise business writing.
Imagine writing emails that earn your readers’ trust rather than the ‘establishment of credibility through provision of appropriate material and references’. Imagine being able to ignite ideas rather a ‘collaborative dialogue around next steps to forward planning’.
Choosing verbs over clutter can set our ideas free. Verbs move writing from mediocrity to mastery. With the right verbs, you can truly rule the world (or at least improve your writing).
Write from your audience’s point of view. If you’ve ever read something and thought, ‘That’s great for you, but why should I be interested?’, you’ll know why this principle is important.
You can separate this process into several steps. Before you start writing, think carefully about what your audience needs, and wants, to know. Try to avoid technical or industry-specific terms if you can, or explain them where you can’t. Remember, different groups of readers might be interested in different parts of your document — guide them to the right information by breaking up the text with headings.
Try to forget you’re at work! All too often, people think they have to use their ‘work voice’ for work writing. This can lead to an overly formal tone, rambling sentences, fancy terminology, too much detail, and important points hidden right at the end of their writing.
A better approach is to write as you’d talk. Imagine you’re describing your work to a friend over coffee. What would your main points be? How long would your sentences be before you’d need to take a breath? What words would you use, or not use, or need to explain? Be as straightforward and human as you can to save yourself and your readers time, effort, and headaches.
It’s not about what you know, how much you know, how good it’ll make you look, or how you can cover your behind.
It’s about your reader.
Think of your reader and how you can help them. If they’re stressed, busy, and only need three main points — for crying out loud, give them three main points. Three clear, concise, jargon-free points designed for them, not for you.
Before you type a single letter, stop! Ask yourself, ‘What does the reader need from me?’
So often we’ve done extensive research, or worked on assembling lots of information about our topic. So naturally we want to tell people all the fabulous things we know, or to explain the detailed reasoning for asking them a question.
If you take time out at the very start, you can put your reader centre-stage and actually craft something they may want to read! This applies to everything from the shortest email (how helpful is your subject line?), to big reports (is your title compelling for your readers?), to websites (what do readers need to see first?). And it works in your personal writing as well. No more emails with ‘Hi!’ as the subject line!
During New Zealand’s lockdown, all the consultants who appear above have been working on all sorts of writing and training projects for our clients, both here and overseas.
Lots of our clients are updating websites and company profiles, creating COVID-19 communications, and preparing applications for funding or responses to RFPs.
Our financial and insurance clients are updating key documents and working on achieving the WriteMark Standard.
And our training clients are joining our live online workshops, learning how to do things like write A3 reports, edit and proofread effectively, think critically, and write reader-focused documents.