Last Updated Apr 13, 2011 9:29 AM EDT
Here are 10 tips:
- Always eliminate the obvious. For example, I didn't start this post with the obligatory "excellent writing skills are incredibly important to any career or business" paragraph. If you don't think good writing is important you aren't reading this.
- Make one point. Good writing gets straight to the point. Not points; point. You can include sub-points, but only when they support your main point. Doesn't matter if you're writing emails, inquiries, proposals, marketing materials... never try to do too much. If you can't narrow down your message you're not ready to write. I wrote a fairly long post about mastering a skill that still has one main point: With the right approach and effort even complex and difficult skills can be learned.
- Create a journey. Good writing is based on a story arc. Everything you write should take the reader on a journey from A to B. When I wrote about Steve Jobs and personal branding, my goal was to help readers who worry about creating a personal brand realize they already have a personal brand. From ignorance to knowledge, from inaction to action, from apathy to caring -- take your readers on a journey from wherever they are to your point.
- Use stories, but only when they fit. To make a point about leadership, I told a story about my grandfather's search for meaning; I think it works. I'm sitting on a story about meeting someone famous. I'd love to share it, but honestly only because it's flattering. Self-indulgence is the leading cause of poor writing. Never use a story for any reason -- especially personal -- other than to illustrate your point.
- Be direct. Verbs are good. Nouns are good. Long, flowery, convoluted sentences are bad. I should know. I write them all the time. That's why you should...
- Cut one-third. Rough drafts are always wordy. Pretend you have a word count limit and force yourself to eliminate a third of your draft. The result will be tighter, more powerful, and a lot more to the point. I cut my king of today post in half when I edited it, and as I re-read it realize it's still wordy. That's why you should...
- Always let your work breathe. We all end up with beer goggles when we write: At some point everything we wrote looks pretty darned good... but then we wake up the next day horrified. I have never written anything I didn't realize later could be improved. For example, check out this little gem: I would love to have a do-over. (It's also a fine example of not using a story particularly well.) Rewrites are a lot easier if you step away and come back with fresh eyes.
- Don't try to force a style. Many people try to mimic a writing style they admire. If you decide to imitate someone who is direct and to the point, great. If you find yourself thinking about style as an affectation, stop. (Website text often provides great examples of good imitation intentions gone wrong.) Your personal style is not your personal style if you have to think about it. And speaking of style...
- Don't go Auto-Tune. Auto-Tune corrects vocal and instrumental pitch (and can make you sound like Kanye West.) Auto-Tune turns the imperfect into perfect, but in the process a little character gets lost. Good writing is a reflection of your thoughts, your ideas, and your points. The key word in that sentence is "your." Ask friends and colleagues for input and let others proofread your work. But don't try to wring out every ounce of character. It's your writing -- it should reflect you.
- Have something to say. I saved the most important tip for last. Don't write unless you have a meaningful point to make; if you force it the end result will stink and you'll think you're a terrible writer. Without something to say, no one is a good writer. Wait until you have something to say and then you will have everything you need. The words will come.
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