“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha [that you] write it.”
Learning to write is like parenting; the job never ends. It is an ongoing process which requires frequent practice and selfless critiquing. Writers have written mountains about what a writer needs to do to build skills and create the best writing environment. James Altucher suggests that by having a large bowel movement daily, your body and mind will flow better. I don’t know if that is valid, but there are several helpful strategies which help to create effective business nonfiction (essays, reports, proposals, letters). I have taught and used the following five tips to create compelling and informative articles.
First – plan, then write.
Know who your audience is going to be. Such knowledge will change what information you choose to use and the language you choose to convey the message. Also, take time to research your topic. Doing some background reading will confirm what you believe to be true and may add a perspective you had not thought of before. Finally, don’t be afraid to create an outline of what you want to say. Writing outlines on the computer allows you to move ideas around and add supporting details. Sometimes they are almost as long as the paper or article I want to write so that I can do some early editing. Your informal outline can be in any format you like, but it makes the writing so much easier.
Second – construct strong beginnings and simple endings.
Your first sentence is the most important because it induces the reader to continue reading. The full introduction should capture interest and state your purpose. Your statement of purpose should be something that requires further explanation. Statements of fact don’t work because there is nothing more to explain (e.g. It rained yesterday. What else is there to say about that?). Some writers suggest that you should write the introduction last. I don’t usually do that because I like having that statement of purpose out there to remind me to stay on target. The ending or conclusion should reaffirm your purpose. It can highlight the most important points, and it can refer to something said in the introduction.
Third – state opinions simply and back them up.
Be self-confident when stating opinions. Don’t use phrases like “in my opinion” or “I believe.” Such statements belittle the power of your statements. Always back up opinions with sound arguments and researchable facts. It doesn’t hurt to review fallacies in reasoning so you don’t get caught in their trap. There are many sites on the internet that list such fallacies as hasty generalization or damning the source rather than the substance of an argument.
Fourth – keep it simple.
Be concise, not verbose. In other words, don’t use 20 words when you could use 10. Use simple, declarative sentences, and avoid long, complex sentences. While many say you should never use the passive voice, I think that “never” is too strong. It should, however, be used sparingly (e.g. the previous sentence is passive – we don’t need to know who the actor is). Active voice makes a more powerful statement, but sometimes knowing the “actor” in the passive is just not necessary. Lastly, choose your words carefully. Your vocabulary needs to be understood well by your target audience. Technical jargon has a limited audience. Using words that your audience needs to look up is annoying. However, improving your vocabulary is a “must” for anyone who does a lot of writing. A broad vocabulary makes for interesting reading. One way to improve your vocabulary is to be a voracious reader.
Finally – revise.
Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe that it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn’t.
–William Zinsser (On Writing Well, p. 83)
Despite best efforts, typos, spelling, and grammar errors pop up. Those are the easy ones to eliminate. Use a spell checker in your word processing program, or load an app from the internet that checks for errors as well as possible plagiarism. I use a program called “Grammarly” to review my work. Most of the time corrections are helpful, but don’t be afraid to reject suggestions. Put some time between edits; in fact, sleep on your work. In the morning, with fresh eyes, you can see what needs to be rearranged, deleted or reworded. Getting a second opinion is helpful. If someone is confused or unconvinced by what you say, you know you have some serious editing to do.
There are excellent books and articles available for people who want to improve their writing. The experts are prolific with their experienced advice. Being a successful writer means that you have become an avid reader, have educated yourself, and have repeatedly practiced writing. The five tips – plan, then write; start and end strong; state opinions simply with backup; keep it simple; and revise – will give you a boost to becoming a more effective writer.
Diane Repass is a retired tenured assistant professor
from The University of Dubuque and now a beloved
writer for Plaid Swan Inc. She received her M.A. from
The University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.