How to write better

Dictionary image

There’s a lot of bad communication about. The instruction you have to read twice. The list you forget five minutes later. The long-winded email that leaves you wondering ‘what am I supposed to do as a result of reading this?’

No one sets out to produce bad communication. But despite our best efforts, a lot of what we write ends up being complex, dry and distant.

This doesn’t come from weakness, but from strength. Each of us is a specialist in what we do. We’re professors in our own project, field or industry. That makes it harder to communicate about our subject, not easier. That’s because the more you know about a subject, the harder it becomes to connect with someone who knows less than you. You might say too little, because you assume the other person knows more than they actually do. You might say too much, because you assume they care as much as you about the detail. And you talk in a way that makes perfect sense to professors, but makes everyone else grimace. And yet, you’re the one with all the answers. It’s really important that you find a way to make them more meaningful to more people.

It can be done. There are some professors who communicate brilliantly. Brian Cox is one. In his TV series ‘Wonders of the Universe’, he made particle physics comprehensible, interesting and memorable. If you haven’t seen his explanation of entropy theory using sandcastles, you haven’t lived.

How does he do it? How can any of us communicate more effectively?

Great communication is clear, vivid and real

Clear, vivid and real is our blueprint for better communication.

When you’re clear, the other person gets what you mean first time, without having to ask again or phone the helpdesk. That stops them getting frustrated, and it saves you time and money. These are good things.

When you’re vivid, they can see what you mean too. By which I mean: they can actually picture what you’re talking about. The more vivid the picture, the easier it is to remember – and the easier it is to share with someone else. If you want your message to travel far and wide, this is how to do it.

When you’re real, the other person can relate to what you’re saying. It doesn’t feel abstract, or fluffy, or removed from the reality of their lives. It feels solid and credible. If you want to show someone you understand them, and that you see the world from their perspective, keep it real.

Professor Brian Cox uses words we understand first time. He paints vivid pictures and tells engaging stories. And he talks about things that mean something to us, like sandcastles.

I want to write better – how do I do it?

OK, so being clear, vivid and real is a good idea. But how do you actually do it? Telling someone to ‘write better’ is like telling an athlete to ‘run faster’. Rather than a generalised instruction, what they need are specific techniques that, added together, produce a better result.

Here are some writing techniques to try:

Break up long sentences into single ideas

Short sentences with one idea in them are really clear. They’re great for making our important ideas stand out.

If someone says “I love you and let’s go for a pizza,” it’s not clear which idea is more important – the bit about love, or the bit about pizza. So, put just one idea in each sentence. This will give each idea the weight it needs. And dividing long sentences into individual ideas helps us spot any weaker ideas that we might be able to cut.

Use verbs instead of abstract nouns

Verbs are doing words. They’re about action – build, find, climb, give. Because verbs are about action, they drive and energise our writing.

But in business, we often use abstract nouns instead. These are ideas or concepts, things you can’t see, touch or draw a picture of – words like performance, preparation, retirement and knowledge. A lot of them are actually built on verbs – perform, prepare, retire, know.

Abstract nouns make our writing sound like it’s being churned out of a faceless corporate machine. It makes our writing feel static, like nobody’s doing anything. And they take the people out of our writing. When you use verbs, someone is actually doing something.

Use the active voice

When we write in the active voice we start our sentence with the person who is ‘doing the doing’. For example, ‘I broke the goldfish bowl.’

But when we write in the passive voice we start our sentence with the thing that is having something done to it: ‘The goldfish bowl was broken by me.’ When we do that, it’s easy to cut out the person doing the action – ‘The goldfish bowl was broken’. Suddenly, nobody can tell who did it.

The active voice is clearer, more energetic and lets us take responsibility or credit for things that are happening. It’s also much easier for the reader’s brain to process. So, use the active voice when you can.

Choose words that resonate

Individual words all have different associations. They make us feel different – even when they mean virtually the same thing. For instance, ‘seaside’ makes us think of donkeys and ice cream, while ‘coastal region’ makes us think of geography field trips.

Similarly, people feel something different depending on whether we say assistance or help. We have more positive associations attached to the word ‘help’, so it resonates more strongly with us. Nobody ever drifts out to sea and shouts “ASSISTANCE!”

By choosing words that mean something to our reader – words that strike a stronger emotional chord – we can bring them closer to us.

Words that resonate are often simple words too – so, they’ll make our writing clearer. But it’s not about dumbing down. The junior doctor who baffles us with jargon sounds less intelligent than the experienced surgeon. This is because the experienced surgeon can explain a complicated procedure using real words that mean something to us.

The right words work wonders

These techniques will make it more likely that people actually bother to read what you write. And when they read it, they’ll be more likely to understand what you’re saying, remember it, and act on it.

The right words don’t just help us win customers and close deals. They help us share ideas and build on each other’s success. They help us collaborate, coordinate, and get the job done. Businesses that are good at this stuff outperform their competitors. Who doesn’t want to sign up to that?