This month, I’m preparing a seminar for public health researchers aiming to improve their writing and bulk up their portfolios of academic papers. At the same time, I’m helping my 5-year-old learn to read and express himself via the glorious written word.
These two activities have a surprising amount in common, especially when it comes to the fundamentals.
What writing tips can an audience of post-grads and my kindergartener both rely on? The same five things we all need to keep in mind when we sit down to compose an e-mail, write a news release, complete a blog post or develop marketing collateral:
1) Check your work.
After you’ve drafted an e-mail to your boss, do you take a moment to read over it before hitting send? You should – and you must take several passes through any copy meant to share in a meeting, with customers or for publication.
This old homework adage sounds elementary (because it is), but it’s surprising how many folks consider their first draft a masterpiece. Depending on what you’re developing, your best stuff may emerge in the third or fourth version. Commit the time and energy to refine your writing with the following steps.
2) Sound it out.
How can you tell a great writer from a good one? Watch for moving lips.
For my son, the sounding-out applies to reading: the “buh” and “ee” reveal “be” for him. For writers, reading out loud can uncover misplaced commas, inconsistencies in verb tense, run-on sentences and more.
Before you finalize a piece, verbalize the draft to make sure it flows. If you bore or confuse yourself, or so
mething just doesn’t sound quite right, get back into editing mode.
3) Keep it short.
The books my son reads (the good ones) deliver a complete plot in under 40 words. In contrast, the academics at my seminar will submit 5,000-word papers – and it’ll be a challenge for them to squeeze into that constraint.
Although the vehicles are different, the concept is the same: effective writing uses as few words as possible to convey a message. When you’ve finished a first draft, take stock of the word count. Then cut 25 percent off that number by eliminating unnecessary content.
4) Use active voice.
My son doesn’t know an active from a passive verb yet, but he gravitates to books written in active voice.
Why the heck would he want to read this…
The light saber was swung around by Billy.
… versus this active alternative:
Billy slashed the light saber through the air, striking the imaginary Darth Vader.
For inspiration beyond Star Wars, check out this list of action verbs appropriate for professional content and even research papers.
Conversely, here is a list of passive verbs worth avoiding: Am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, have, has, had, do, does, did. Of course, sometimes these words are necessary, but to create engaging copy, they should be the exception.
5) Work hard, go outside and play, then revisit your writing.
Ever find yourself stuck in the middle of writing copy? Put the project down, go hit the monkey bars (or the office coffee machine), and then return to your piece when you’re fresh. Often, a new perspective will gives the extra oomph you’ll need to finish the job.
What fundamental tips do you rely on to create your best writing? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!