I love to write. I always have. Writing is one of those few things that I feel I do pretty well, and working in the advertising and public relations business for the past 34+ years has given me plenty of opportunities to write. I’ve written ads, brochures, scripts, white papers, feature stories, blogs and countless memos, letters, emails and whatever else one can imagine—except tweets; I don’t do tweets.
My writing has covered a wide variety of subjects—ranging from building products and medical devices to process control, phase-shifting cooling devices and thousands of others. Sometimes I’ve struggled, other times I nailed it on the first shot, but each and every time I submitted my work, I did so with the confidence that my content accomplished its specific objective, was easy to read, and had a direct message.
These six rules give me the confidence that my writing will hit the mark every time:
1. Start every writing assignment with a full understanding of the objective at hand.
Before I even touch a keyboard I think about what it is that I want to accomplish. Is my goal to educate an audience about a new technology, position my client’s product in a particular light, defeat sales objections, establish my client as a thought leader or something else? It has been my experience that as long as I keep my eye on the prize, my writing will accomplish what it was intended to.
2. Keep it simple.
The whole idea behind writing is to put a believable thought into your reader’s mind. Given that people’s attention spans are only getting shorter, the only way to ensure the thought you want gets placed into the right person’s mind is to make it easy for the reader to understand you. Whether I am writing about highly technical lab equipment or a simple hold-open rod, my goal is to make it so an eighth-grader can understand what I have written but an expert isn’t bored by it. Use industry jargon if you need to, but do not assume your audience is omnipotent.
3. Tell your audience what’s in it for them.
In its simplest terms, a transaction involves somebody trading something of value for something they feel is worth more. Most rational humans will gladly part with five dollars if they feel they are getting ten dollars of value, so the key is to make their benefit readily apparent. If in reviewing my work I find I cannot immediately identify what the benefit to the reader is, then I have written poorly and need to make a fix.
4. Keep it truthful.
What is the truth? When does an embellishment become a lie? When does an information provider cease to be trustworthy? As soon as that provider gives his or her audience even an inkling of doubt, his or her words lose their power to persuade. A simple exaggeration or error can not only instantly render an entire document useless, it can also impact an organization’s future messages—just ask the boy who cried wolf. My bottom line on truthfulness is really quite simple—if you can’t prove a statement you are making is the truth, then it isn’t. Period. You can say save up to 50%, but only if you can prove it, and you better prove it right there. I believe that modern people start out with limited trust anyways, and they are always looking for reasons not to believe, so that is why whenever I write I make darn sure that my facts are checked and my inferences are real.
5. Follow a logical path.
Every time I write something I am doing so in an effort to influence the readers’ thinking. I expect my readers will want to learn about what my client has to say because they feel they will be better off because of it. I can put words down and hope that the readers will follow the “path of enlightenment” I have laid out for them, or I can proactively make it so they have no choice but to take that path by crafting a story that is logical and defensible. If the unique selling proposition I am trying to extoll is a lower cost of ownership, I provide detailed and easy-to-follow examples of why my client’s product will do that. If you don’t lay things out in a logical order you’ll confuse your reader, and a confused reader does not a good customer make.
6. Read it out loud.
To me, this has always been the simplest step, yet it is rarely used. Before I submit any document, I read it out loud to myself. I do this for several reasons. First, no matter how hard one tries, people invariably read something the way they think they wrote it, and not actually how it is written. I have managed to save myself a significant amount of embarrassment by reading my work out loud prior to sharing it with others. Further, another benefit is that sentences that are not constructed quite right are much more noticeable when they are spoken rather than read. Frequently after reading my work out loud I will replace words, change sentence structures and even re-order paragraphs if I feel that the point I am trying to make would be better served. I believe the written word has more power when it is heard, rather than read, so by making my writing conversational in nature I feel I am more likely to make an impact on the reader.
There are a number of other rules I try to follow when I write—things like gender and political neutrality, religious and cultural inoffensiveness and similar, but in general, I have found that if I follow the six rules above, my finished deliverable will meet my client’s objective, and at the end of the day, that is what I am supposed to do.