Transform Your Writing from Buzzword Soup into Captivating Copy – 7 Simple Tips
By Chris Gillespie, founder of Find A Way Media
Ask a kid
Writing for business doesn’t have to be boring, but most is. It’s often riddled with clichés, jargon, acronyms, and buzzwords, which indicates the writers don’t actually understand their topics.
As the aphorism goes, if you can’t explain it to a child, you probably don’t understand it yourself. Perhaps that’s why most great authors appear to write for children. Malcolm Gladwell, famous for his armchair psychology books, writes at an eighth-grade reading level. It’s the same for The 4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss and the eponymous The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald.
And Hemingway? The Old Man and the Sea has been scored at a fourth-grade reading level, and not because it’s for fourth-graders.
Most great writers share some common practices: They economize words, strive for clarity, and write with their readers in mind. In a world of impenetrable business copy, adopting just a few of these techniques can make you stand out.
Here are 7 tips for better business writing:
1. Use sharper verbs
There are tens of thousands of verbs in the English language yet most writers use a small handful to death. The problem with this handful is that they’re so general they don’t really mean much. Be, do, have, say, go, get, make – these all have hundreds of punchier alternatives which can help you pack more meaning into the same amount of text.
“To go” becomes journey, retire, walk, fly, or slither. “To have” becomes take, embrace, receive, or possess. Each alternative is chock full of subtext. Comb back through your work, thesaurus tab open, and replace generic verbs with ones that make the writing more precise. Wherever possible, avoid two-word verbs, such as “to go” or “to hear,” which are generally the least meaningful.
Where can you find better verbs? Try PowerThesaurus.org. It’s crowd-sourced and offers punchier alternatives.
2. Eliminate adverbs
Adverbs often indicate a writer’s failure to find the correct verb. Adverbs are those adjectives that precede verbs and end in -ly. For example, “Incredibly powerful” or “Audaciously daring.” They’re a vain attempt to give verbs more punch, but the punchiest verbs stand on their own.
‘Smartly dressed” becomes elegant. “Incredibly powerful” becomes almighty. “Audaciously daring” becomes courageous or bold. Strunk and White's Elements of Style likens the overuse of adverbs to putting a hat on a horse. Wherever you find adverbs in your writing, let them go.
3. Avoid passive voice
Passive voice in writing treats the action as the subject, instead of the actual subject. This obscures the meaning of the sentence and readers find it confusing. The more you can replace passive voice with active voice, the easier it will be for readers to follow the narrative.
Here are a few passive constructions with active alternatives:
The award was given to her —> She was given the award
The insatiable thirst consumed them —> They were consumed by an insatiable thirst
The time of their lives was had —> They had the time of their lives
4. Don’t use hyperbole
Readers don’t care that you’re excited. In fact, if you are too insistent that they share your feelings, your writing will have the opposite effect: Readers will become bored and stop trusting you as an impartial source of information.
For example, saying, “It’s the most incredible, unbelievable product to ever hit the market!” sounds trite and the writer sounds biased. Far better to show, not tell, and support your excitement with statistics and describe the reactions of others.
Instead of telling readers that the product was exciting, point to the fact that the product sold out within the first hour, or quote users. Always try to lay out the facts and let readers decide.
To take it a step further, downplaying the importance of something can heighten its effect. In Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, he describes violence with the same simple language one might use to describe a pedestrian crossing the street. But the effect is powerful:
"They beat him until he fell and the man who had stuck him first called to others to help him and he pulled on the collar of Don Benito’s shirt..."
Much better than, “Wham, they clobbered him until he went sprawling!”
5. Vary your sentence structure
Like long, straight roads, repetitive writing puts people to sleep. Vary your sentence structure – between long and short or complex and simple – so readers feel like they’re riding up hills and down valleys. For example, turn this:
The company was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the CEO wasn’t sure what to do. He and his executive team sat down, but they were interrupted before they could begin. The intern came rushing in, brandishing a blue slip of paper.
With the company on the verge of bankruptcy, the CEO wasn't sure what to do. He gathered his executive team but just as they sat down, they were interrupted – an out-of-breath intern rushed in brandishing a blue slip of paper.
6. Resist the urge to use parentheses
When writing business articles, either say something or don’t. Writers often use parentheses to indicate that information is supplementary but if the goal is to provide readers exactly what they need and nothing more, parentheses only serve to slow the reading down. Far better to use commas, en dashes, or links.
7. Prune mercilessly
You goal in writing is to convey as much as possible while using the fewest words.. Trim your writing of needless words or flowery descriptions. A good rule of thumb to avoid passive voice: once you write your article, go back and trim another 30 percent. That means making tough calls, which fall into two categories:
Without sacrificing content
If you can remove words, phrases, sentences, or entire paragraphs and still convey the same message, do so. Delete words and reread the piece to be sure. You’ll also find that many phrases can be condensed into a single word. For example, “On a daily basis” becomes every day. “Corroborate the identity of” becomes verify.
This is where pruning gets tough: If two sentences are making a paragraph feel cluttered, you must decide which is more important. This takes a very nuanced understanding of what’s most essential in telling the story. Test ways to combine the two and reread the piece to see if it’s better with one or the other and choose the strongest.
And remember what Mark Twain said: “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”