5 keys to powerful, precise writing that really work, every time

When I was in school, and an assignment for a paper was due, someone would often ask, “Does the writing count?” One professor gave a succinct response that has stuck with me every since: “The writing always counts.”

Whether it’s a speech, a cover letter, a memo or just a quick note, the writing always counts. If your audience has to read your communication a few times to make sense of it, you’ll have lost them. If your memo fails to make your point crisply and clearly, you’ll have blown your chance. And, of course, if your cover letter rambles or doesn’t grab the attention of the hiring manager right away, you’ll hinder your chances of getting an interview.

I think we all know that writing always counts. But we’re eager to grant ourselves exceptions to the rule. “It’s just a thank you note…or an email…or a note to my kid’s teacher…or, or, or.”

How to make your writing count for — instead of against — yourself

So if you feel like your writing could use some shaping up, the first thing to do is to own up to that. Commit to paying more attention to your writing, no matter what the circumstances or the audience. And then, to make it easier to keep your commitment, follow these five tips that work for everyone, every time. I promise.

1. Say it out loud

Did you ever notice how much more fluid most people sound when talking than compared with their written voice. So many of us tend to get worked up and stressed out when trying to write something — way more so than when we are describing something out loud.

One fix for this is to actually say it out loud instead of writing what you want to say. Many apps exist now that help you record even lengthy comments. This site reviews some of the best ones. Try saying what what you need to write. Then listen to it. And take the best parts and transfer those to your screen. Just write down what you already said. You can edit and clean it up. But you might find that you really like the way your “writing” sounds through this technique.

It works especially well when you are an expert and need to convey information about a topic you know inside and out to a group that knows much less about the topic. Picture the audience. And then turn the recorder on and explain the concepts as you might to a group of fifth graders, clearly and simply (but not patronizing, please!)

2. Verb, verbs, verbs

Verbs are the best friends of powerful, precise writing. They are strong, vibrant and specific. Verbs help writers immediately convey an image to readers that would take many more words of description, otherwise. Here’s a quick example:

“The man burst through the door. He shrieked for a doctor. ‘Hurry, my son stopped breathing!’”

That’s five verbs within three sentences of just 15 words. Verbs grab attention. They help keep the pace of writing moving like a river, instead of stagnating like a pond. Keep in mind, especially when you’re stuck, that the clearest construction of sentences are noun/verb. Always. It’s foolproof.

3 Details

Editors will often tell writers to “show, don’t tell.” That’s because showing works so much better. Some examples.

Tell: It was a breezy and sunny morning.”

Show: “The trees’ leaves sparkled and danced in the golden dawn light.”

Tell: When the driver slowed down, the car made noises.”

Show: “As the driver braked, the car groaned and rattled, as if complaining.”

Get the idea? The sentences that show let readers see the image. And they use more verbs than the sentences that just tell.

4. Examples

Anecdotes help writing. It would’ve been much harder for me to explain the difference between showing and telling in tip #3 without those examples. Probably impossible to do effectively. Analogies work, too. If the concept you are writing about is technical or not common, using an example that compares it to something that most people are familiar with helps readers understand better.

Like this:

A fiber that’s as thick as one strand of hair.

The test was so hard just one in ten of the students passed.

The therapy putty felt like Playdough.

The baby was so small the doctor’s thumb was the same width as the newborn’s leg.

These examples show why letting your readers visualize your writing with examples and anecdotes and analogies is effective. It gives them a picture or context.

5. Toss out wordy baggage

When you write, don’t worry if things aren’t perfect the first time through (or the second or third!) In editing, though, one surefire way to spruce things up and improve your copy is to scout for the phrases and words that do nothing except take up space. Hunt them down and strike out phrases like these 11:

  • there is
  • it is
  • and the reason why
  • seeing as how
  • during the course of
  • due to the fact of
  • as of now
  • at the present
  • at this point in time
  • on account of
  • despite the fact that

These phrases and their many close relatives hurt writing. When you see them creep into your material, be ruthless with them and kick them out.

Here’s another post that gives quick pointers on writing clearly. Let me know, please, what you think.

 

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8 comments

  1. 5 keys to powerful, precise writing that really work, every time

    This is great advise.  I recently started writing and noticed that I could improve.  These tips are just what I needed to read.  Many thanks, Heather Jabusch

  2. 5 keys to powerful, precise writing that really work, every time

    This is a great article Becky!  This is exactly what I needed to read! You always have the best content. Thanks for sharing your knowledge :)

  3. 5 keys to powerful, precise writing that really work, every time

    Wow, what a complement, @HeatherJabusch  I really appreciate that! Thanks.

    • 5 keys to powerful, precise writing that really work, every time

      @BeckyGaylord I have started writing my own articles for Spicie and am learning so much from you! Keep up the great work~

  4. 5 keys to powerful, precise writing that really work, every time

    I love #2, #4 and #5. Use Active Verbs, always find ways to incorporate examples/anecdotes, and every proof-reading session should find some way to reduce the words for a more clear and concise piece of writing.
     
    I’m a big fan of varying sentence structure and tone, too. Mix in short sentences…compound sentences…questions and exclamations if the topic permits that variety.

    • 5 keys to powerful, precise writing that really work, every time

      Thanks, DBV! I always learn so much from your posts and comments. Cheers

  5. 5 keys to powerful, precise writing that really work, every time

    The more people (the ones who are unwilling to spend years developing the craft of writing) write as they think and speak, the closer they get to writing perfection. 
     
    Which is another way of writing: 
     
    “Did you ever notice how much more fluid most people sound when talking than compared with their written voice. So many of us tend to get worked up and stressed out when trying to write something — way more so than when we are describing something out loud.”
     
    Everyone has a unique “Voice”. Finding your own “Voice” (on the page – not be confused with taping your own voice) or “Style” is not difficult. Just write as you think and speak. 
     
    It’s the advice I give to everyone unwilling to spend one year, let alone twenty, perfecting the craft of creative writing.
     
    What you have written, Becky, can never be repeated too often. 
     
    And you can thank MJ Gottlieb for the recommendation via Twitter.

  6. 5 keys to powerful, precise writing that really work, every time

    @DavidFarrell  I really appreciate your comments, David, and your kind remarks! And thanks, too, mjgottlieb!

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