Powerful language is the soul of effective communication. It’s also the soul of successful marketing, business, and government. Remember “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall”? We cannot measure the global impact of those six words.
What’s the secret to better writing? Two necessities: more reading and more writing. Both are unglamorous; but both are effective and productive.
Before you hire a writing coach, put your reading and writing on steroids with these seven principles.
1. Master the fundamentals. Begin with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. After 30 years of writing, I still keep this paperback on my desk. It’s the best primer for when to use who or whom, singular or plural possessive, and active or passive voice. “Writing is visual. It catches the eye before it catches the brain,” said William Zinsser. If you get the fundamentals wrong, you’ve lost your audience.
2. Make The Wall Street Journal your literary vitamin. Written between the 11th- and 12th-grade levels, the WSJ is full of strong words that carry the reader through each paragraph. The more words in your arsenal, the more potent your prose. Not just for the investor, the Journal also informs and entertains on wine, real estate, and work life balance. In Saturday’s Style & Fashion section, Dan Neil wrote about his time-worn Carhartt jacket and how the brand managed to stand apart as “the secret handshake of the American yeomantry.”
3. Read On Writing Well by William Zinsser and On Writing by Stephen King. Business writing is replete with people who dialogue, interface, and talk about paradigms. My first impression is not to do business with companies who sound so pretentious. “A clear sentence is no accident,” says King. “Rewriting is where the game is won or lost.” Spend the time to write it right.
4. Reread The Gettysburg Address and the context surrounding Lincoln’s speech on November 19, 1863. It’s difficult to find 278 words more powerful or memorable.
5. Study Warren Buffet’s Letter to the Shareholders. From one of the richest men in the world who lives in a sea of balance sheets, you might expect sophisticated, complicated, multi-syllabic ramblings. What you find is plain English that delivers clear answers and stunning financial results.
6. Think like a child.
There’s an art to writing children’s books, and every time I read Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series, I smile. Lobel’s beginning reader books capture the simplicity and strength of good writing. If you can’t remember how to write in the active voice with sentences that have subject-verb heft, read an award-winning children’s book.
7. Start tweeting. Contrary to a belief that social media is the demise of standard English, I believe learning to inform and persuade with 140-character limits is a best practice for purposeful writing. If someone follows you on Twitter and retweets your insight based on a compelling 140 characters, then you’re excelling at clarity.
Practice does make perfect, but I agree with Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
Anne D Gallaher