Published: 2010 (3rd edition)
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Advertiser David Ogilvy has recommended everyone read Writing That Works at least three times. One of the main recommendations in the book is that when you know what you want to write – just write it. The one who mumbles gets less attention than the one who speaks in plain language. For busy people to act, your text must go to the heart of what matters. Most of the texts are unclear, carelessly written and confusing.
”If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant, if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone” – Confucius
LESS IS MORE. Understand the three most important things the reader needs to know – then just say it. Use short paragraphs, short sentences and short words. That’s a rule of thumb used by Wall Street Journal editors to make the text easier to read. Many people also mistakenly believe that better writing is the same as writing more. Often the opposite is true.
HEADING IS IMPORTANT. Five times more people read the headline than the entire text. If the headline is not interesting, you have wasted a lot of time.
”If you are lucky enough to have some news to tell, don’t bury it in your body copy, which nine out of ten people will not read. State it loud and clear in your headline. And don’t scorn tried-and-true words like amazing, introducing, now, suddenly”
THE THREE PARTS OF THE TEXT. A longer text must be divided into (1) introduction, (2) intermediate part and (3) conclusion. The introduction should capture the readers’ interest. There should be an unspoken promise to the reader that it is worth continuing to read. The middle part is the body of the text and shows where the author is going and contains important information, sometimes controversial and entertaining conversations – preferably with frequent examples from life, ideas and anecdotes. The conclusion should result in a lingering thought in the reader’s head. The first and last impression leaves traces – put a lot of focus on these.
BE WELL-READ. H.L Mencken has said ”Most people write badly because they cannot think clearly”. Ignorance often manifests itself in generalities, which means that the reader has to guess what is meant. Understand enough to be specific. Do not write “very overspent” when you can write “overspent by 10,000 dollars”. Write “two days late” instead of “something according to the schedule”. Avoid vague adjectives and adverbs.
FIGURATIVELY ONLY IF IT HELPS. Do not expect the reader to be able to read your thoughts: “Take into account how much you can assume your reader knows – what background information, what facts, and what technical terms”. Figuratively language works well if it is very successful, such as George Bernard Shaw’s opinion as a music critic “I did with my ears what I do with my eyes when I stare”. Most often, however, figurative language becomes confusing.
“If you have distilled your thinking to its essence, you will probably be able to express it in simple words”
WRITE THE WAY YOU SPEAK. Do not write like a lawyer or a bureaucrat. The best thing is to write the way we speak. Use a down-to-earth and humble language. There is always a simple and humble way to say the same thing as the “show off” word. Avoid exaggerations as a single exaggeration in an otherwise well-argued text can cause suspicion for the whole point.
EDIT YOURSELF. Skilled writers view editing as part of the writing process and not just as a necessary evil. Write first and then edit. Go through the text once with the question in your head “what should I delete?”. Good writers also change a lot in the text – the presentation order affects the understanding. Also, read the text for inaccuracies in the facts and holes in your arguments and to get a sense of whether the tone is right.
”Writers should strike out every third word on principle: you have no idea what vigor it adds to style” – Mark Twain
GOOD E-MAIL. The authors’ four-step rocket to a good e-mail is: (1) write a clear and appealing line of subject matter that gives attention and a sense of content, (2) get to the point and cut out unnecessary text, not only to save the reader’s time but also for to get the core points, (3) be clear with your purpose and message and (4) be specific with the next step and if you want your email to lead to action – get it in your last paragraph. If you have nothing to say that is more than a formality, stop writing.