Bad writing is wasting your time.
Eighty-one percent of businesspeople surveyed for the State of Business Writing report said that bad business writing—that which is too long, poorly organized, unclear, and full of jargon and errors—wastes “a lot” of their time.
Of course, I’m a content manager by trade, so poor writing works out for me in the job security department. But it’s also painful to watch, like Charlie Sheen post-2009 or Donald Trump’s understanding of how Google works.
Marketers: Let’s do better. I’m here to help. Here are my 10 biggest tips to improve your writing, look smarter and get what you want.
1. Use simple language
“Use the smallest word that does the job.” – E.B. White
Good writing is simple, clear and concise. Don’t get fancy with your word choice, writing things like:
- Utilize instead of use
- Accordingly instead of so
- Facilitate instead of help
- In order to instead of to
- Commence instead of start
- In close proximity instead of near
- Call your attention to the fact instead of remind you or notify you
People use these longer words and phrases to sound smart, I believe, but they only come off sounding uncomfortable and full of themselves.
You can use the longer words, of course, if they’re the best words for the job. If your meaning is so precise that no other word will do, go for it. But if a simple word gives you the same meaning, go simple.
2. Cut the fluff
Good business writing expresses what you want to say using as few words as possible. Fluff, meanwhile, is the superfluous language that doesn’t add any value to your copy. If a word is not necessary to the meaning of the sentence, delete it. The words you keep should be strong, decided ones.
- If you think you might want to visit Phoenix in the summertime, you should seriously look into whether or not you can get any discounts or cheaper rates at Phoenix-area hotels.
- If you plan on visiting Phoenix in the summer, ask for discounted rates at local hotels. Much better.
3. Avoid ‘very,’ ‘really’ and other absolute modifiers
This tip is an offshoot of the one above it, but it’s worthy of its own spot on the list.
Strike these qualifiers from your business copy: really, very, so, basically, pretty, virtually, definitely, and the like. These are weak words. And look, I have a Twain quote to prove it:
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” – Mark Twain
Besides, there’s a better adjective to describe what you’re trying to say:
- “It’s very hot” — It’s sweltering.
- “She’s so happy” — She’s elated.
- “He was really angry” — He was furious.
4. Write in the active voice
Which sounds better?
- My lonely hearts ad was not responded to by anyone.
- No one responded to my lonely hearts ad.
- It was wished by me that drinking at my desk would be permitted by Arnie.
- I wish Arnie would let me drink at my desk.
- It was wondered by Nantale if professional help was needed by Megan.
- Nantale wondered if Megan needed professional help.
In each case, the second choice sounds better. That’s the active voice, in which the subject of the sentence performs the action. In the passive voice, the target of the action becomes the subject.
Most of the time, the person or thing performing the action should be the subject; it’s just tighter, better writing. The passive voice isn’t wrong, but it’s not good, either.
You can spot the passive voice by looking for instances of a by phrase. In all three examples above, the action was performed by the subject. Rewrite the sentence so the subject is at the beginning of the sentence.
5. Avoid clichés and jargon
Clichés are trite and boring, and you risk appearing as such if you use them. Some of the biggest culprits here are:
- Out of the box
- On the same page
- Hit the ground running
- Top of your game
- In a nutshell
- Stand out from the crowd
- Under the radar
- Spread like wildfire
- Raise the bar
- Tip of the iceberg
- At the end of the day
- Circle up/circle the wagons
- Bang for the buck
- Low-hanging fruit
- Out of left field
- Reinvent the wheel
- Best foot forward
Replace these phrases with dynamic language. For example, instead of saying something is “out of left field,” you could say it is unexpected, surprising, odd, nutty, eccentric, wacky, peculiar, without warning, harebrained, erratic, oddball, goofy, fluky, or offbeat.
Ditto jargon. Jargon is language that is specific to a particular profession or group and is difficult for outsiders to understand. There’s a lot of crossover between jargon and clichés, so marketers, be careful before you write using marketing jargon, even if you’re addressing other marketers. Examples of marketing jargon include:
- Thought leader
- Content is king (we’re guilty of using this one)
- Growth hacking
6. Don’t use exclamation points (I mean it)
I know what you’re thinking! Exclamation points generate excitement! Marketers need to be exciting! I’ll just use one every now and then!
Blech. No. Exclamation points are amateurish and distracting. They’re fine for personal expressive writing, social media posts, IMs, texts, even emails among chummy coworkers—I use them myself in those circumstances. But for any type of business writing, including professional emails between colleagues, clients and prospects, avoid using them.
7. Beware timid language
Watch for phrases like you may want to, sorry but, it’s possible that, just, I think, we can try, probably, sort of, sometimes, and the like. They diminish your voice. State it like you mean it. For example, compare the following:
- I’m no expert, but Arnie Kuenn sort of seems like a smart guy.
- Arnie Kuenn is a smart guy.
- I’m just writing to check in and remind you to vote for Arnie for president.
- Remember to vote for Arnie for president.
I’m not saying you can never use them. Sometimes (see that?) it’s perfectly appropriate to cast doubt with your words.
8. Don’t misplace modifiers
Modifiers are words or phrases that describe (modify) something else. A misplaced modifier is one that modifies something you didn’t intend it to modify, because it’s placed in the wrong position in the sentence.
Despite their impropriety, these can be funny. Here are some real-life examples:
- I saw a dead skunk driving down the highway.
- She handed out brownies to the children stored in Tupperware.
- I smelled the oysters coming down the stairs for dinner.
- Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope.
The modifier should clearly refer to a specific word in the sentence. Aim to keep them as close as possible to the thing they’re modifying. If you are having a hard time fitting all the information in one sentence, simplify your sentences. Split them into two.
9. Mend your comma splices
A comma splice occurs when you use a comma to join two independent clauses. For example: “I often ditch work to watch movies, it’s so much fun.”
“I often ditch work to watch movies” and “it’s so much fun” are independent clauses; each could stand alone (independent) as its own sentence. You can’t separate the two with a comma. That’s a comma splice.
You can fix a comma splice in one of three ways:
- Separate the two independent clauses with one of the seven coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so): “I often ditch work to watch movies, for it’s so much fun.”
- Separate the two with a semicolon, dash or colon: “I often ditch work to watch movies; it’s so much fun.”
- Make them into two separate sentences: “I often ditch work to watch movies. It’s so much fun.”
10. Don’t misuse quotation marks
Look at these examples. Quotation marks are not needed in any of the following:
Use quotation marks when you’re directly quoting someone or denoting an official title (book, movie, song, etc.). You may also use them to indicate that you know a term is questionable or to indicate irony or sarcasm: I just love the “food” at this hospital.
But, if you’re using them for emphasis, stop. You don’t need them. Try italics instead (but use those sparingly, too). Let your words convey power. Please don’t do cocaine in our bathroom, besides being a reasonable request, needs no extra punctuation for emphasis.
Why is good writing important for marketers?
Good writing is important for everyone but particularly for marketers. Here’s why:
1. Good writing is a brand ambassador
Good writing is a trust signal; it says you’re sharp and conscientious. Poor writing says you don’t care about quality and don’t know how to express yourself well. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in your abilities.
2. Good writing helps you get what you want
Marketing is about messaging, isn’t it? If your message isn’t communicated clearly, whoever is on the receiving end of that message has a lot of latitude to screw up your intent. Don’t let that happen.
3. Good writing boosts productivity and saves money
Bad writing is a waste of money and a killer of productivity. Josh Bernoff, author of “Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean,” claims it’s costing U.S. companies an astounding $400 billion annually.
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