How to Write Better – Don’t Be Passive!

I’ve been asked a surprising number of times by colleagues and friends how they can improve their writing, and I have some suggestions that can help. These suggestions are designed for business professionals who need to write better, but some of the tactics will work for everyone.

Write with an Audience in Mind

Thinking about your audience and trying hard to communicate with them will focus your mind and make you less sloppy as a writer. What do they know? What don’t they know? Decide and then tell them only what you must and in as few words as possible.

Write More

I am sure you have heard this one before, but unfortunately it’s true. You don’t learn to play golf better by reading books or watching TV. It’s the same with writing, so try this trick: write a paragraph or two every day about something you are passionate about – lowering taxes or driving your new car. Your love for your children is another great subject. It doesn’t matter what you write about. You can burn them or tear them up. It doesn’t matter. Just write them – with an audience in mind.

Read More

I am always amazed at how many magazines are available in my local Barnes & Noble, and I would suggest you pick one up every week or subscribe. The trick is not to think about reading the whole magazine, which invites stacking them behind your study door unread. Take charge and choose one article that really interests you and read it. Then recycle the magazine. I subscribe to The New Yorker, The Economist, and the NY Times on weekends. If I read these each week cover to cover, I’d never have time to do anything else, so I only read what interests me. I know this sounds wasteful, but it works – and reduces clutter.

Listen Critically

The next time you are in a boring meeting, don’t sit there and have fantasies about hanging yourself from the nearest light fixture. Ask yourself why this person is so boring – too much detail, bad organization, awful delivery (too fast? too slow? too monotone?) These are some of the cardinal sins of bad writing too – and some remedies are fewer words, shorter sentences, and more guideposts (headings, boldface, lists, keywords).

Get Professional Advice

Recently I was looking at two white papers done by a digital agency, and both were reasonably well written but had the same glaring error – the pronoun reference was often wrong, which made the writing annoying and unclear. You may have one or two bad habits like this, and correcting them would be easy and could help your writing improve greatly. If you don’t have professional editors at work to bribe with lunch, you could try the local adult school. I recently attended a four-week course taught by a freelance writer who I’m sure would have closely edited a writing sample of mine for a good bottle of wine. Memoir writing classes are also popular these days, and this is the kind of course that can give you some fun practice along with good advice, especially if you explain to the teacher that you would value a professional opinion.

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About Regina Domeraski

I am a writer and have been for as long as I can remember. I worked as a technical writer and now a marketing writer for high-tech companies, but my interests go far beyond technology and include writing as an art and a craft, creativity, film, classical music, and the mystery genre (after all, Hamlet is a murder mystery).
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2 Responses to How to Write Better – Don’t Be Passive!

  1. MGCabral says:

    Excellent and helpful article on how to write better. I would add that a proper presentation of the writing material is an excellent way of getting people’s attention. I would also add to your post that having context in mind (as well as an audience) is an important factor to take into account when writing, specially in social media, blogs and microblogging.

    Also, I have noticed that readers’ engagement and online viral potential depend greatly on the gramatical style, which makes me wonder which verbs or gramatical forms would make readers better engage in the reading? Do you know which key words, gramatical forms or verbs drive action? I am very interested in marketing professional writing and driving action through words. I have written a post on this topic: http://wp.me/pRTWi-4L

    Thank you for your help and mentoring!

    • Your post and the video you provide are very interesting. I would make two observations. First, both the original sign and the rewrite appeal to the emotions, but the new text does it in a more clever and original way. Something new gets people’s attention, and they are more apt to give. The second point is more interesting. The copywriter has changed the focus from “me” (“I am blind. Please help”) to YOU can see this beautiful day and I can’t. This is a far more powerful, and it is a simple trick — it focuses more on the reader than on the writer (the blind man in this case). By thinking more about the audience and its emotions, the ad agency (the video is, after all, an advertisement) comes up with something new and fresh and more directly emotionally appealing — and here we get to the most interesting part — POSSIBLY prompting more donations. Nowhere does the agency claim that it is a true story. So, although this seems like a great idea, it might not work as well in reality. One problem I see with the new text, for example, is its length. Too much too read, so although we might be tricked into buying this ad, the text might not have helped the blindman as much as the ad claims.

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