What is your biggest pet peeve when you read business writing?
Emails from coworkers are too long and rambling, company mission statements include too many buzzwords and not enough meaning, and sometimes the content is just plain too long.
At Content Marketing Conference, writer Josh Bernoff’s workshop and Keynote, “Writing Without BS,” was a breath of fresh air.
Bernoff encouraged us all to write boldly–and better yet, he showed us how. Here, I share my takeaways, including: how to write better by getting to the point, cutting unnecessary words, create structure, and writing without BS.
Get to the Point With Powerful Prose
While he was researching book, Writing Without Bullshit, Bernoff surveyed hundreds of business writers about their writing and reading habits, preferences, and peeves.
45% of writers surveyed complained that the content they were writing was too long, while a whopping 65% reported that the pieces they read were too long.
It turns out brevity is not just the soul of wit. It’s also just plain better.
How do we as marketing writers turn the tide against rambling content?
Bernoff recommends writers:
- Always start with a word limit
- Always edit that first draft
- Rewrite (and rewrite again)
- Delete and reorganize relentlessly
Working With Word Limits
Imposing word limits from the very start will keep you focused on your topic and prevent you (and the reader) from getting pulled off course by non-essential tangents. When you have limited space to get your point across, you have no room for filler words. Keep it tight.
It can be difficult to write to a strict word count, particularly if the topic is something you are passionate and particularly knowledgeable about. But, see the word limit as a challenge, not a drawback.
If you have five examples that prove your point, choose two. If you have an interesting aside, save it for another blog post and link the two together for readers who want to follow your train of thought.
When space is limited, only the strongest prose survives. This will only improve your writing.
Meet Your New Best Friends: Editing and Rewriting
Bernoff is a fan of thorough editing and revising, even for something as mundane as email. Always, he encouraged, edit and revise your writing.
When working with an outside editor, he added a caveat. Just because someone has read your work and suggested an edit, doesn’t mean you have to accept that edit. As he says, “If you just do everything the editor tells you to, you are not a writer, you are a stenographer.”
Whether you are editing your own work or incorporating an outsider’s input, it’s important to revise and rewrite.
Your entire piece needs revisions, of course, but pay extra attention to your opening paragraphs.
The average reader spends just 36 seconds reading a news article. For your content, your readers are probably spending even less time. Your title and opening paragraph may be the only part of your content that your readers engage with. Make it count.
Revise and Reorganize Your Work
In academia, we were taught to write in a linear fashion, with our written words following an organized train of thought–from A to cumulative Z.
Counter intuitively, this doesn’t work for business writing. While it may be easier for you to write linearly, that may not be the best and most compelling way for readers to absorb information.
As part of your revision process, move around sections, paragraphs, and sentences.
In addition, Bernoff suggests rewriting your title and openings with every draft, fine tuning your message until readers can’t help but be hooked.
This advice goes well beyond clickbait. Your title and opening should include a summary of the content within and a clear description of the value your readers will receive. Your content must deliver that value.
Cut Out Passive Voice, Jargon, and Weasel Words
It can be really, really fun to write floral, decorative prose. Words like synergy, cohesion, and strategic innovation sound good, but if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll see; they don’t really have any meaning for your audience.
He recommends writers:
- Turn passive voice into active language
- Delete vague weasel words
- Replace jargon with concrete, easy to understand words
While Bernoff discussed the evils of passive voice and weasel words (like: many, very, often, rarely), I thought his slides on jargon were the most effective and important for marketers to remember.
After all, our high school English teachers warned us about passive voice, but no one warned us about jargon. As marketing writers, we are often encouraged to pack our pieces with as many fancy buzzwords as we can. This is how we end up writing sentences like, “the ideal candidate must have the ability to export key learnings to industry stakeholders.”
If a certain amount of jargon is unavoidable, as it is for specialists and highly technical writing, be sure terms are defined and used appropriately. Whenever possible, Bernoff advises you ditch the jargon. I couldn’t agree more.
Provide Structure That Supports Your Readers
No really. They do – at least when they are being made to read on screens.
In a classic work of literature, reading a large block of text can be a lyrical and immersive experience. For better or worse, this isn’t the case for text on a computer screen.
While many writers love curling up with a good novel or a print magazine, there is only one demographic that reads more print media than online… and that is people over the age of 70. Unless that’s your target audience, it’s time to say goodbye to the traditional paragraph.
“Digital technologies are not designed for deep reading,” says Naomi S. Baron, author of Words Onscreen. Rather, the most impactful content is quick, clear, and skimmable. This means more line breaks and fewer paragraphs.
For Bernoff, these tactics are integral to make onscreen content readable. Writers should include more:
- Numbered and Bulleted Lists
- Links to Related Posts
- Numbers and Statistics
- Infographics and Illustrations
The goal is to create content that is easy to read by creating a compelling visual structure that adds interest and increases understanding–without distracting from your purpose.
Cut the Baloney and Supercharge Your Writing
What do you think about Bernoff’s tips for better business writing? Do you have any other tried and true tactics for bold and powerful prose? Share your tips in the comments.
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