Writing Hacks To Improve Your Emails, Job Applications And Facebook Statuses
Whether you’re churning out cover letters or contemplating your second blog, everyone could stand to be a better writer than they are. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of pretentious nonsense out there, and many of us fall victim to the discouraging notion that ‘good’ writing requires a fountain pen, an architecturally superior office, and the reading of hundreds of books.
Good news! That’s all rubbish. Writing is about communicating, and unless you were raised by wolves, you’re probably a decent communicator, no matter how cramped your office is.
To help you sound better on the page, here are some tips I’ve picked up (i.e. stolen) after flailing about, octopus-like, in the online writing community for several years.
Use plain language
From the time we enter year 11, we’re encouraged to use big words in our writing. Doing so shows that we’ve read at least some of the learning materials, and that we’re capable of using “academic language.”
Then, at uni, we’re often called upon to split fine conceptual hairs in our essays, which trains us to use words – even whole sentences – that are entirely redundant, just to make sure the graders get the point we’re trying to make, and we don’t miss out on a mark. (Also, we have word counts to pad out.)
Unfortunately, getting in the habit of using big, unwieldly, needlessly polysyllabic words and sentences doesn’t make for good writing. It just makes normal human things sound vague and detached from reality. You don’t, for instance, “accessorise” yourself with earrings; you wear them. But many a first-year would be tempted to use the word with the most syllables.
The education system trains us to impress our reader with big words. But in the real world, it doesn’t work that way, and the reader is more likely to be pissed off that you’re forcing them to decipher your arcane prose.
Do your reader a favour, and keep things as simple as possible.
Kill the passive voice
You probably know this one. It’s when no one in a sentence is doing anything – things just happen, as if by magic.
Drinks were poured. Mistakes were made. Countries were invaded.
The passive voice has certain legitimate uses. However, for the most part, it’s the language of liars, scammers, and politicians. Even worse, it’s boring.
Edit with extreme prejudice.
Get rid of that
This is a really simple way to tighten up your sentences: cut the word “that” as often as possible. You’ll be surprised how little you need it.
Don’t try to be too clever
This one gets me a lot. I’ll bang out a nicely structured sentence while silently congratulating myself on how witty it is, only to later reread it – sometimes after publication – and realise I sound like a complete douche.
If you’re writing lifestyle or opinion, your writing does require a certain flair – you are, after all, trying to entertain people – but there’s a fine line between ‘entertaining’ and ‘smug’. Knowing where that line is takes some practice, but there’s a fairly effective litmus test for detecting douchebaggery in your writing: have someone else read your work back to you.
If, afterward, you feel the urge to punch them in the jeans, you’ve tried to be too clever.
Avoid noun clusters
This is when we take something as normal-sounding as “management skills for entrepreneurs” and twist it into some pseudo-academic monstrosity like “startup management deliverables.”
The person reading your resumé won’t be impressed, unless they’re hiring you to bullshit people.
Think about the reader
When you ignore the reader, you end up with sentences like this one, taken from the website of ACT Policing:
“Community policing in the ACT is delivered by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in accordance with three principal direction setting mechanisms that drive our planning frameworks.”
This website is supposed to provide information to the public, and yet the wording is so opaque, it would hardly have made a difference had the author written nothing at all. The noun-cluster “principal direction setting mechanisms” could only have been written by someone who was writing not for the public, but for humanity’s future robotic overlords.
If you want your words to count, think about how they would be read by your intended audience.
For example, writing “Jim got a beverage from the fridge,” isn’t nearly as evocative as “Jim fumbled a slightly warm Heineken from his fridge.” The second sentence is just so much more relatable than the first, which sounds more like a stage direction than something an actual human would do.
Just look at Stephen King and JK Rowling – both very successful writers, both incredibly specific, sometimes to a fault. Like, Jesus, Stephen, I don’t need to know how many Twizzlers you could buy for a nickel in 1979 – just get to the clowns and death!
Paint a picture with your words
The other thing about being specific is that it makes for better imagery.
Eyes have been around for a lot longer than typewriters. Consequently, we humans tend to think in images rather than words. And the less imagery your writing has, the harder it is for people to visualise what you’re saying.
Take, for example ‘global warming’ versus ‘climate change.’ The former gives us a clear image: the world is warming up. The latter, on the other hand, is much less evocative; ‘climate change’ gives us neither the scale nor the inclination of the ‘change’ it refers to. It could be talking about an ice age, for all we know. (No wonder politicians prefer it.)
I’m no expert on good writing, but I know a great way to write badly is to smother your images with words that are too large or too vague. Writing is a window between the reader and your meaning, and you should strive to make that window as transparent as possible.
(And once you’ve done that, email me some tips, seriously.)
Joel Svensson is a Canberra-based writer originally from Melbourne. He’s written more latté-fuelled stories about first-world problems than he cares to admit, and can be found coping with misleading hashtags at @le0jay.