I am often appalled by some of the writing I see, almost all of which can be easily improved though the application of a few easy guidelines. If used these can add punch to your writing and enable you to get your message across to your audience – loud and clear.
After all, the whole point of writing something is to make sure that what you write is found, easy to understand and, very importantly, compelling. If what you write does not achieve this objective then either your article will not be read completely or will not be properly understood. Either way, your message (the whole point of writing the article in the first place!) will be lost.
So what are the problems that I commonly find when editing articles and how can they be corrected?
1. Over-use of past tenses – stodgy and lifeless prose.
Wherever possible use the present tense rather than past tenses or subjunctives. The present tense adds immediacy and life to any writing – where the past tense can deaden the potential vibrancy of text.
Most conversations are overwhelmingly in the present tense and most people’s concerns are rooted in the ‘here and now’. So, give your writing ‘life’ and immediacy…
2. Third person and unfamiliar – impersonal and too didactic
Unless instructed otherwise, always write in the first person and be familiar: ‘I believe that you should do xyz’ – as opposed to ‘it is thought that a person should do xyz’.
Be familiar and talk to your readers as though you know them. Try to imagine that you are speaking to a friend, someone you respect who is reasonably bright and has a fairly good (not robust!) sense of humour. Be inclusive in your arguments and thoughts: ‘so what are we to think about the President’s recent decision’ as opposed to ‘so what are people to think about the President’s recent decision’ and so on…
3. Long sentences – hard to read and out of date
Keep your sentences to a strict maximum length. So, for example, I will automatically cut any sentence that extends a single word beyond three lines in Arial 12, as I know that, beyond that point, any argument will be hard to follow and the language required increasingly complicated. So, be brutal and re-phrase a long sentence or break it and turn it into two sentences.
However, whilst keeping sentences short is a good thing you must be careful to ensure that you constantly vary the length of your sentences (to a given maximum) or the prose will become very tedious, staccato and hard to read.
4. Paragraphs – too long
A paragraph must not be too long – it will simply ‘feel’ and look daunting to many readers and put them off tackling the text. So, break paragraphs up and keep them short and punchy to suit thoughts and distinct arguments that are clear and delineated.
Equally, a paragraph can be only one sentence – and a short one too. Do not be afraid to have paragraphs like this, which can be very powerful and drive a point home with great effect.
5. Wordy prose – out of date and irritating
Get to the point! If you have something to say then say it – and say it in the simplest and clearest way possible, using the shortest and most commonly used words that you can find with which to express yourself. Remember that the majority of your audience are not overly literate, so write for the ‘man/woman in the street’, as opposed to some highly cultured intellectual!
Finally, never forget that the literate and barely literate, the highly educated and the ignorant have two things in common – a short attention span and absolute intolerance to wasted time!
So, always remove every obstacle in the way that you write that can prevent your work being read and your message fully understood by the biggest section of your audience…
Nick Snelling is co-author of The Laptop Entrepreneur (print book only £14.99): the book that shows you how to make a living on the Internet. Nick is the author of five books, a copy writer and runs Culture Spain, an authority site about ‘all things Spanish’.