Clean up your writing and win more business – five easy steps
As a copywriter, I’m always banging on about the power of writing in plain English. That's because not all businesses appreciate its value. I see it all the time – long-winded, muddled information on websites and in sales brochures.
The truth is, a bit of straight talking can make a big difference to your bottom line. Here I explain how, with five easy steps to put you on the right path.
Why use plain English?
- it cuts the amount of time (and money) spent on answering customer queries
- it speeds up decision-making – if your customers can quickly grasp how your product works and how it can benefit them, they’ll be more likely to buy there and then
- it builds trust and confidence in your brand – using jargon or big words is akin to that dodgy car salesman with the annoying patter
- it gets people to read your information in the first place – grabbing their attention at the outset is key.
So you’ve gone to the trouble of creating a great piece of communication for your customers. You’ve done some research and you’ve spent hours crafting your messages. Now, be honest, how does it read? Before you publish, take a look at my five tips for writing clearer, income-boosting copy...
One: use plain words
I prefer to call these words ‘intelligent’ because the brain is able to grasp their meaning quickly. Instead of trying to show off your vocab skills, choose common words used in ordinary conversation. Some good examples are:
Words to avoid Use instead
alleviate ease, reduce, lessen
as a consequence of because
has the capability can
in conjunction with with
initiate start, begin
notwithstanding even if, despite, still, yet
prior to before
Two: go for short sentences
So you’ve been lucky enough to grab someone’s attention – don’t lose them by saying too much in one breath! You should be aiming for a sentence length of 22 words or less. Long sentences need more concentration and are more likely to confuse your reader.
Some examples I’ve come across:
Before: If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.
Change to: If you have any questions, please ring.
Before: The team’s role is to perform problem definition and resolution.
Change to: The team’s role is to spot and solve problems.
Three: favour active over passive language
Sentences that use an active rather than a passive voice are easier to understand. When you use active language your reader knows straight away who’s performing the action. The brain absorbs this information quickly and reading speeds up. An active voice gives your writing energy and pace – and this keeps your reader engaged.
Before (passive): A large donation was made by us.
Change to (active): We made a large donation.
Before (passive): The sign-up process for new tenants has been improved by us.
Change to (active): We’ve improved the sign-up process for new tenants.
Four: use contractions
A contraction is the joining of two words where one letter is dropped and replaced with an apostrophe. So ‘it is’ becomes it’s and ‘there is’ becomes there’s (sorry if I’m teaching you to suck eggs – stay with me!). If the tone of your writing is conversational – and it should be unless you’re writing a formal paper – then use contractions.
What’s more, contractions make your writing friendly, approachable and more appealing to readers. If you want to connect with your audience and build a sense of trust, then you should write like you talk. And using contractions is an easy way to achieve this connection.
Five: write for the reader
Sounds obvious, right? But you’d be surprised how easy it is to overlook this point. Your aim should be to give readers information quickly and easily. And that can mean ignoring some of the things you’ve been taught in English class.
At least three ‘rules’ you can break:
1. Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction – At school, you were probably told not to start a sentence with ‘and’, ‘because’ or ‘so’. But this is not a rule of grammar. Many famous writers like JK Rowling and Jane Austen have ignored this convention. And we’re used to seeing this approach in newspapers and magazines. Why? Because this style of writing makes it EASY for the reader to grasp information and understand what you’re saying.
2. Don’t put a comma before ‘and’ – Again, this is a common classroom myth. A comma before ‘and’ tells the reader to take a pause or conveys a sense of importance for what’s to follow. A comma alters the pace of copy and can help the reader make their way through longer sentences (no more than 22 words, mind you).
3. Don’t have a one-sentence paragraph – Pre-1992 I might have agreed with this one. But the internet has changed the way we write for business. Reading on screen, especially on a smartphone, is so much easier when information is displayed in bite-size chunks. So one-sentence paragraphs for websites, blogs and social media posts get the thumbs up from me. They can be great for print too, when you want to make one point stand out. Go on – give it a go.
In business, it doesn’t pay to make your readers struggle. Think about what you want to say and what people want to know. And tell them quickly, using these techniques.
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