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Making Your Point

Oct 6, 2010 12:00 PM, By Don Kreski

How to write for websites, brochures, engineering documents, or email.


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If you want to write in a way that makes your business more successful, you may have to forget what your high school English teacher taught you.

I know that because I was once an English teacher—or at least I was trained to be one before I started my career in marketing. In many ways, I've had to forget what I learned in high school in order to succeed as a writer.

The problem with high school English teachers is that most (though not all) teach a very formal writing style that's widely used and really dull. So unless you have a strong moral conviction that boredom and pain should be part of the working day, I'd like to make a few suggestions.

First of all, loosen up. If you have trouble getting started or dislike the process of writing, you can begin just by putting the information into the computer without worrying about your style. You can go back and polish what you wrote later.

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Simplicity and clarity

Clarity is your number-one goal in any written communication. People are busy. They want to know what you're saying and understand it quickly. It's almost always the case that if you can rephrase something in fewer words, you're better off. I can often trim 20 percent from the word count in a draft I've written without losing any meaning. The result is something that's easier to read and quite a bit more interesting.

The most deadly (and common) problem in American writing is passive voice, sentences where there is no subject. A phrase like "The conference center was designed for high definition" is inherently dull. We don't know who designed the system and we don't care. Rephrase it to read: "Ace designed a high-definition system." It says more in fewer words.

Some people don't like to use personal pronouns. That's a problem, too, because it forces them to passively say, "The system will be programmed to..." Take some responsibility for what you do: "We will program the system ..." or "I believe that ..." or "We will include ..." It's true that Miss Pence told you not to use "I" or "we" in a formal essay, but in the real world, people will appreciate your clarity and candor.

Some people avoid contractions. It is legitimate to keep your writing a little more formal than your conversation, if that's what you prefer. But realize that great writers in every age have tried to capture the sound of the spoken word. Individual styles vary, but if yours is wordy, unclear, or hard to read, you're going to have trouble communicating.



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