This is a blog offering advice for businesses, organisations and individuals interested in presenting information clearly and persuasively through the written word.
It isn’t about creative writing, though the techniques used by novelists, poets and essayists to tell stories, summon vivid images and explore the aesthetic possibilities of language offer invaluable insights for the use of words for everyday pragmatic purposes. Good writing for the purposes of marketing or other business communications can be graceful and compelling.
I’ll discuss many aspects of good writing but will return over and over to three elements: clarity, style and content.
Clarity is a matter of selecting the words and images most likely to make your meaning plain to the reader, and ensuring each new sentence follows logically from those preceding it. That sounds straightforward enough, but it is a skill that must be acquired.
We need to be prepared to take the time to visualise what we want to say and to choose the set of words best able to allow our reader to see it for themselves. Even the most skilled and experienced writer is continually tempted to skip the careful work of visualisation and selection and take refuge in clichés, stock phrases that can be grabbed off the shelf and snapped together to construct something that looks like serviceable prose.
The temptation is particularly acute if the information we are trying to communicate is technical. If we have expertise in a certain field we can lapse into using a specialist vocabulary known to ourselves and other insiders but unfamiliar our readers.
Rather than relying on an insider’s lexicon to do the work for us we need to take the time to make our meaning plain using everyday language and imagery with which all of our readers will be familiar. If we don’t we’ll produce cold and remote prose, an assemblage of abstractions the eye simply skims over without comprehension.
Explaining ourselves with clarity takes effort. But when we get it right it is extremely rewarding, both for the reader and ourselves. A good, clear passage of text has a solidity and coherence that makes it pleasing to read and even to speak aloud. There is satisfaction in the task of arranging words appropriately, and once we’ve got it right we can use a well-written passage of text over and over again.
Good style is not about learning tedious grammatical ‘rules’ concerning the splitting of infinitives, the appropriate use of the ‘Oxford comma’, or the difference between ‘you and me’ or ‘you and I’. It’s about writing clearly and engagingly for your intended readership.
You don’t need to take a grammar course to write well. Everyone who can use a language is already a master of grammar. Grammar is a set of fundamental rules about how language works that we learn as young children. Once we are familiar with them we have a foundation for using language in different ways: there is no one ‘correct’ way. Languages have distinct dialects which are equally valid. There are international differences, as with the difference between ‘British’, ‘American’ and ‘International’ English. Language can be used in different registers for a huge variety of purposes. There are distinct styles for oratory, legal transactions, practical instructions, storytelling, reflection, humour, essays, examinations and so on, and on. The important thing is to choose a style suitable for the particular relationship that exists between writer and reader.
To say that English can be used in multiple ways doesn’t mean there are no conventions. Over time a ‘Standard English’ has emerged, a set of expectations for how the language should be used when we engage in the business of day-to-day life. We need to use Standard English when, for example, we’re writing a job application, filling in a form, presenting a business proposal, making a speech, or writing for a publication. If we don’t, we won’t be taken seriously.
So it’s important to be familiar with Standard English. But always bear in mind that it is an open-ended convention that is changing all the time. Good style is a matter of making full use of the flexibility that Standard English affords to present engaging copy for your readers, not painstakingly following forbidding grammatical rules.
Writing with clarity and an appropriate style will get us a long way. But we still need to try to make our subject as interesting as possible.
As traditional advertising becomes less effective it’s becoming increasingly important for businesses and organisations to try to interest their audience, whether they be customers, supporters, members or donors, through content likely to capture their attention. This blog is itself a form of ‘content marketing’, of course: you’re more likely to look at the services I offer if you find my posts worth reading. It’s becoming more necessary to think like a journalist, features writer or storyteller to win the right to be heard.
So I’ll be looking at ways of making even the most seemingly dull subject interesting by viewing it from different angles. I’ve never been asked, but I think it would be possible to turn out a thousand readable words about dishwater. We could try setting the practice of washing dishes in its historical, cultural, economic and political context. Who, through history, has been expected to do the washing, and why? How did people cope with washing up before the ready availability of clean, warm water? What impact did it have on their health? Is the dishwasher, along with the washing machine, one of the most liberating technologies ever invented? It would be possible to work in all kinds of interesting references if we are prepared to take the time to do so. With an internet connection we have limitless information at our disposal to help illuminate any subject.
Content marketing, of course, extends beyond the written word to images and video. I’ll be concentrating on writing here, but will talk from time to time about the possibilities imags, and particularly infographics, afford for illustrating certain kinds of information.
Learning by example
The best way to indicate good writing is not simply to seek to describe it, but to show what it looks like. So when appropriate I’ll illustrate my posts with examples of good and bad writing.
But I want to focus on the good, because it’s rarer, and none of us have much room for complacency to look down at bad examples. We are born with an instinct for language, and speaking comes naturally to us. But writing is a skill that we have painstakingly evolved over millenia, that doesn’t come easily. It’s a skill that has to be learned and refined. But it’s something that all of us can, in time, get better at, and learn to enjoy. This blog is a small contribution to that challenge.
My next post takes a look at why we find writing harder than we think it should be – after all we’re just using words as we do when speak. But writing, unlike talking, doesn’t come naturally.