Chances are that you do some writing from time to time. Maybe it’s just emails to your coworkers. Maybe it’s public-facing verbiage on your website. Maybe you correspond with customers, clients or donors. We do a lot with the written word these days, and it pays to remind ourselves how to do it well.
I’ve put together these 7 rules from a few different sources: Hemingway, Orwell and Bird. If you ask me, it’s worth brushing up on these sorts of things periodically. I should probably do it more often.
Use short sentences.
Hemingway was a master of this rule. He learned it from a newspaper’s style book. Short sentences make your writing easy to digest. That’s very important in our fast paced world.
Eight words make for an easy sentence. Sixteen words is okay. Thirty two is too much. Your reader may lose track and lose interest.
Use short paragraphs.
Nothing deters a reader like a wall of text. Break up your ideas into easy to digest chunks, and don’t make every paragraph the same length.
Break up your text.
There are a number of ways to make your text less intimidating beyond short sentences and paragraphs. For example,
- Bulleted lists
- Headlines and sub-headlines
- Bold or italic type
That doesn’t mean to always be happy. It means describe what something is rather than what it is not. Call something affordable rather than inexpensive. That produce is organic rather than pesticide free.
You can compare your offerings to your competitors and still be positive. Just talk about what your offering is rather than what theirs is not. For example, “Acme widgets are 32% stronger than Brand X widgets.”
Use the active voice.
This one will keep your sentences shorter and more potent. You wouldn’t say, “the championship was won by us” would you? No. You’d say, “we won the championship.”
Draw the reader along.
Make it easy for your reader to keep reading to the end.
Build curiosity. Don’t give everything away in a headline. Use curiosity to draw your reader along. What else?
Questions help. You can bridge two paragraphs by ending one with a question. Naturally the reader will go to the next for the answer.
Additionally, you can use carrier words. At the start of a sentence, these tell the reader that there’s something more to get. Examples include, furthermore, plus, also, finally, next and and. (It’s okay to start a sentence with and. You aren’t writing a term paper.)
What this all boils down to is clarity. Your writing should make sense and have a logical flow.
A good test is to ask a layperson to read your writing. Ask them if it’s clear. If not, revise.
Finally, I don’t know who said this, but here’s a quotation to keep in mind:
“Something written to please the writer rarely pleases the reader.”