Newsflash: It’s not difficult to write well. In fact, it’s probably easier to write well than it is to write badly. The key is to forget everything you’ve been taught about writing (teachers are often the worst offenders when it comes to poor writing) and just write like you speak. After all, if you’re talking to someone else – giving them the latest gossip, asking for information, whatever it may be – you don’t sit down beforehand to plan it out. In most cases, the words just come out and they make sense to the other person. You have the words and you know how to use them. So why does it need to be so complicated when you try to write them down?
As a journalist and sub-editor, I have read thousands of poorly written press releases, letters, speeches, emails and even newspaper articles. And what I’ve discovered is that they all share a handful of easily avoidable errors. Cut out these five common mistakes and you’re already well on your way to becoming a better writer.
1. Overcomplication: I’ve said it before, but it can’t be restated often – or strongly – enough: good writing is simple writing. Get to the point, using as few words as possible. Use simple words that you and your readers will understand immediately – nobody wants to have to go searching through a dictionary when they’re reading a newspaper article. And they won’t.
Here’s a trick to help you do this: Imagine you’re walking home from work. A man runs past you at full tilt. A couple of seconds later, two police officers come sprinting past. You watch as they tackle the man, get him on the ground and handcuff him before bundling him into a patrol car that arrives soon after.
When you get home, your girlfriend asks you about your day. How do you tell the story? Do you start by describing what you had for your lunch? What your boss said in a meeting earlier that day? What the weather was like?
Of course not – you immediately tell her the most exciting thing that happened to you that day. “A mad thing happened when I was walking home. I saw two cops jump a guy and beat the crap out of him.”
That’s the kernel of the story there – the most salient facts.
You’ll then go on to add some detail, in something like the following order: How he had been running away from them, how the patrol car arrived shortly afterwards, what he had been wearing (if you noticed), how he had looked, how the cops had looked, how other people on the street had reacted.
In other words, you give the most important – and exciting – details first, then gradually add the smaller details, all the while using your words to build up a picture of the event that you witnessed. And you do it all in normal, everyday language.
It’s the same with good writing: cut to the chase and cut the crap. Focus on the five W’s – Who, What, Where, When, Why (in whatever order, depending on the story). Imagine you’re telling the story to a friend, face to face and don’t overcomplicate the thing.
2. Reliance on cliché/jargon/bullshit
This is one of the most common pitfalls for inexperienced (and experienced) writers. And it’s a trap that’s easy to fall into.
Cliché is a default mode of speech. We use them every day. Examples: ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’, ‘Company X always puts its customers first’.
Expressions like these have been overused to the point of becoming meaningless. Don’t use them. They simply clutter up your writing and irritate your readers.
The same goes for jargon, ie. terms that are specific to a particular sector or industry. Business jargon includes such peaches as ‘low hanging fruit’, ‘going forward’, ‘actioning a plan’, ‘downsizing’…the list goes on.
Often these terms are used to disguise the true meaning of what’s happening. For instance, terms like downsizing, restructuring or reducing headcount all mean the same thing – cutting jobs! But how often do you see it expressed in that way?
Cliché and jargon both serve the same purpose: to deflect from the true meaning of what you’re trying to say, either deliberately or inadvertently. Hence a good writer should seek to avoid both
3. Bad spelling
Yes, I know it’s a no-brainer, but it’s incredible how often bad spelling crops up. And it’s so easy to avoid. Most text today is written electronically and pretty much every package you’re going to use will have some form of spell checker.
Use it, but don’t rely on it.
The spell checker will highlight some obvious howlers, but even the best ones will miss and/or confuse certain words. (More on this in later posts). If in doubt, grab a dictionary and check the spelling and meaning of a word. If you’re still not clear, then delete it and use another word, or combination of words, that you – and your reader – will understand more easily.
There’s no excuse for bad spelling, so take your time to get it right.
4. Poetic licence
Also referred to as purple prose or flowery language. This is when a writer gets carried away with description or qualification.
Example: It was a fiercely hot day, with literally millions of tiny bugs performing intricate loop-the-loops in an azure-blue sky.
Now that’s a mouthful!
The words in bold are redundant. Leave them out.
Take a leaf from Ernest Hemingway’s book (indeed, any of his books). Keep your writing lean and clean and it will be more effective.
5. Poor structure
Lots of us get confused about punctuation, grammar, sentence and paragraph structure. It can be a minefield. But it doesn’t have to be.
Write like you speak. Learn to use the basics of punctuation. Capital letters, full stops, commas – these are all essential tools in a writer’s arsenal.
Tip #1. Start each sentence with a capital letter and end it with a full stop.
You’d be amazed at how often this basic rule is ignored. A sentence doesn’t end with a ‘,’ or a ‘:’ or a ‘;’. It ends with a full stop ‘.’ .
Tip #2. Keep your sentences short.
Don’t write long, rambling sentences, with lots of commas and sub-clauses. If in doubt, stick in a full stop and start a new one.
Tip #3. Use paragraphs to break up your text.
A big block of text is very uninviting to the reader. Use paragraphs to break up your text and make it more accessible. Each paragraph should express a particular idea/thought/point.
No paragraph should contain more than five or six sentences, if at all possible. Much more than that and it becomes too dense.
If appropriate, use sub-headings to break up the text. These can act as signposts to guide the reader through what you have written.
So, there you have it. Five common mistakes and how to avoid them. Cut these out and you’re well on your way to being a better writer.