Writing is a process that everyone fears despite it being an invaluable skill in the professional world. While anyone can write, only a few people know how to write well, with the average person in the United States reading at a grade school level. In the digital age, most internet users will also stop reading in as little as 10 seconds, highlighting the importance of knowing key concepts that are necessary in producing well-written content.
The first step to good writing is to keep everything simple and concise. There's a saying that writing simply shows a mastery of writing: this is a golden nugget of truth that should be kept in your pocket at all times.
Unnecessary words and phrases often creep into articles, reports and emails, or sentences are bloated with words that could be removed without any notable difference. News articles are great examples of pieces that don't waste any time or space with the unnecessary.
Associated Press style, the style of the journalism industry, was created for a need to conserve space in newspapers and cram as much information as possible into a small column. While space constraint has changed in the digital age, simplicity will always engage a reader rather than bloated text that they stumble and trip over in confusion.
This may seem obvious, but revision is a tool that all writers keep at the forefront of their toolbox. Let's say you just finished a piece and think that it's perfect in every way; it isn't perfect at all. There are words that can be removed, sentences to be chopped down, positioning of paragraphs to be flipped around, and small errors that need addressing.
Writers will often go through multiple revisions before they feel remotely satisfied with their work, only to go back and revise for the nth time. After finishing your piece go back through, revise it, walk away for a bit and read it a second time--I guarantee that your piece won't go unchanged.
So far you've mastered simplifying your sentences and revising your piece; it's time to make sure that your paragraphs are positioned properly. In a study by the Nielsen Norman group, the average user on a webpage may only read a quarter of your content. A majority of users will also stop reading in as little as 10 seconds, making the way your information is presented crucial in engaging the reader. For the inexperienced, following what is known as the inverted pyramid is a great way of ensuring that your content is formatted properly and concisely.
The inverted pyramid is a metaphor used by journalists to illustrate how information should be prioritized when setting up an article. Its origins begin with the telegraph and the structure uses the most newsworthy information at the very top. The remaining information trickles down in order of most important to least important.
Because of the level of importance placed at the top of the pyramid, journalists use what’s known as the lead to convey the 5 W’s and 1 H of the story. The 5 W’s and 1 H answer:
The inverted pyramid forces writers to get to the heart of the story within the first few sentences by stating the thesis in the lead.
This is vital when a reader could potentially stop reading within seconds, but it also teaches you how to organize your information so that it flows and doesn't leave anything unanswered as you move from paragraph to paragraph.
Pull the reader in with your first paragraph by answering what your piece is about, then follow-up with more information in the second paragraph. Funnel the less important information toward the bottom, or provide answers to potential questions created in the previous paragraph.
Knowing your audience is incredibly important when doing any kind of writing. If your content doesn't interest them, your audience won't read it. It's important to craft your message in a way that reflects how your audience speaks.
A bad habit that people practice is writing like a robot, devoid of emotion or humanity. An exercise to prevent this is to imagine talking to a friend at a bar; most people speak better than they write, so write as if you're explaining something to a friend. Your content will be easier to follow and understand to most readers if you practice this visual exercise.
The biggest deterrent to a reader aside from poorly written content is clumsy repetition. There are 171,476 words in the English language, so it's lazy to not use synonyms or create a better sounding sentence.
Another good exercise is to read your content aloud: does it sound pleasant? Or does it put you to sleep? Vary your word choice and add some cadence by shortening and lengthening your sentences.
Back in grade school students would often groan and fidget in their seats at the sight of writing prompts for essays. Writing about a subject that you have no interest in is an easy way of ensuring that your content is boring. If you consider writing to be a chore, your content will be a chore to read, so write about a topic that you find interesting. This will ensure that your readers are just as engaged as you are when crafting your piece.
Writing isn't a skill that only people with innate talent can master. It may take time, but every piece of content that you produce will only improve as you continue to practice. Anyone can write and by following these concepts you'll be a better writer with a readership who will appreciate your content.
One resource that helped me is "Writing Well" by William Zinsser; it's a fantastic book that goes into greater detail than I do about how to be an outstanding writer. I highly recommend giving it a read and your writing will be better because of it.