Do you hate writing? Do you stare at a blank page for hours only to decide you’d rather scroll through mindless cat videos instead? Why is writing so hard?

The truth is, it’s not writing that’s hard. It’s writing well that’s tough, and unfortunately bad writing is everywhere – even professional writers churn out stuff that makes you wish they’d chosen a different career path.

But learning to write well can be one of the most valuable skills you’ll ever learn, particularly if you’re in business. It’s a skill you’ll use every day, from short text messages to longer emails and blog posts. All of us write, and that’s the gist of a great book I just finished, and I wanted to share five key things I learned from it.

Everybody Writes (click here to buy online) is a useful reference guide for anyone interested in improving their writing, either professionally or personally (obviously the first step is being willing to accept we all have room for improvement, even all you weathered old copyeditors out there who think you know everything!).

It’s written by Ann Handley, someone who is all too familiar with the most common mistakes a lot of us make, having worked as an editor of other people’s writing for many years.

She offers a wealth of practical tips on how to make our writing suck less. There were so many good points, and I strongly encourage you to read the book, but I’ll limit my list to just five main ones.

The book is an easy read and doesn’t get bogged down in rules of grammar (which can sometimes just be a matter of preference anyway) but instead offers a commonsense approach to writing, one which I wish the big tech company I worked for as a copywriter had taken on board.

They were more interested in keeping the lawyers happy with lifeless content that would make parliament TV look as intense as a Dwayne Johnson movie, than actually caring about the reader’s needs, and that’s one of the main messages in the book – always keep the reader in mind.

Tip #1 – Use the Empathy-Utility-Inspiration formula

Hopefully, you’ll notice that all these tips keep coming back to the central theme of making whatever you write serve the needs of the reader – it’s not about you, or your business, it’s about them, and successful writers know this.

Put simply, the better you understand your audience, the more likely you’ll be a better writer.

  • Empathy – Look for ways to understand your reader’s pain and adjust your writing to suit. This is often forgotten by writers of technical manuals, who fail to keep in mind the reader’s emotional state. Looking up a help manual only to be on the receiving end of a set of stern instructions that make you feel like more of an idiot will probably not endear you to the writer (or the product you’re attempting to use).
  • Utility – Whatever you write should be useful to the reader. Is this something they can use? Will it make their life better? Is it practical? This involves knowing your readers, and what their current level of understanding is.
  • Inspiration – You don’t need to be Tony Robbins to inspire people, but you do need to have a clear idea of what action you want your reader to take, particularly if you’re writing marketing content. Write in a way that encourages them to move in the direction you want them to go.

Review whatever you write using these three metrics, and you’ll be on your way to being a better writer (or a writer that your readers enjoy, which in my opinion is the same thing).

Tip #2 – Respect your reader’s time

This is one of my favourite tips, mostly because so many writers ignore it (unfortunately). A key way to achieve this is obviously through brevity, and using words sparingly. Don’t use a lot of words when only a few are needed, and don’t use long words when a diminutive short one will do.

Don’t take a running start (i.e avoid preambles if they don’t really add anything to the point you’re making) and cut out text that distracts the reader from the key ideas. Better to make a few points well, than cover too much and overwhelm the reader.

But, it’s not just about using fewer words, it’s about understanding the reader’s intent.

Ask yourself: Why are they here? (and I don’t mean just in an existential way, that’s too much for a single blog post to cover!). What information are they seeking? This is particularly important when it comes to writing for the web.

Even avid readers generally don’t read websites like they’re savouring a good Lee Child book. They’re often scanning, looking for key information – business hours, what services you offer or whether you sell that hard-to-find car part for an old Fiat they’re working on.

Respect your reader’s time by making it easy for them to get the information they came for, fast. This means laying out your content in a way that makes it easy to assimilate and understand.

Tip #3 – Text and Design go together

Following on from the last point of making information easy to assimilate (a point dear to my heart after doing Information Design as part of my post-grad studies) it’s important to understand how text (copy) and design (online/web and paper/hard copy) go together.

I don’t want to pick on the company I used to work for, but they were a classic case of design before text. Web designers would mock-up a design, filling it with lorem ipsum (dummy text) in any space they had reserved for text. It then came to us as copywriters to fill in the blanks. It was a relatively efficient way to punch out a web page but missed the point of how text and design should be on an equal footing, not added to fill a space.

Design and text should combine to create an overall message. This means using the formula in Tip #1 to understand what your audience needs, and combining text and design to deliver your message as effectively as you can.

Tip #4 – Break some rules

It’s possible you still the hear the voice of your old English teacher, and you panic any time you start a sentence with a conjunction, or end it with a preposition. The reality is that language is constantly evolving – the words, the medium, and how it’s used.

While you should always check, check, and double-check, spelling and basic grammar, there is plenty of scope to have some fun with your writing, and break traditional rules on how sentences should be structured and organised.

If the rules you’ve been taught make your writing sound boring, stuffy or wordy, then it’s time to break free and do things differently. Remember, you’re not writing to your old English professor or to impress your teacher.

You’re writing to real people who don’t need to read your content. Don’t lose your audience because your stuck using outdated or inconsequential “rules” on writing.

Tip #5 – Be authentic

In the book, Anne talks a lot about being honest. It’s an important point, particularly when writing marketing and sales content, where the temptation to stretch the truth is ever present. But you can go one better than just being honest – you can be authentic.

Be real, and speak in the language of your audience. Be personable and relatable.

To achieve this, think about the personality of the business you’re representing, and let this guide you in developing a unique voice.

The question is asked: If you removed all the branding from your website, would people still know it was your business? Or does your writing come across as if you copied it from a template, full of industry buzzwords and jargon that are often meaningless?

By being authentic, writing with a unique voice that is focused squarely on your customers, you’ll make a strong connection with your audience and be memorable in a sea of bland and boring content.

Keep learning, keep finding ways to be a better writer

You may never be a published author or pen your life story, but being a better writer will help you in a lot of different ways. More than just increasing the chance of motivating your readers to action, it will elevate the impression others have of you, and your business.

Even though I’m a copywriter (technical writer, too!) with years of corporate experience, I still make mistakes, and I’m still open to learning better ways to write, and learn from others.

If you’ve written something, maybe a page for your new business website, and you’d like us to review it, just get in touch.

We also offer a helpful website writing guide and downloadable template in this blog post.

Everybody Writes is a valuable reference guide for anyone in business, particularly marketing, and includes the fundamentals of 17 specific kinds of content that marketers are often tasked with crafting, such as compelling website landing pages that convert. Buy it now through Amazon

5 Quick Tips to Help You Write Better
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