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Writing tips

Writing well: a dozen ideas to help your writing achieve results

By Sylvia Bauer

The main idea is to be as compelling, clear, consistent, credible, and correct as possible. Use the following strategies to make your publication more effective.

  1. Before starting, establish your deadline for publication and make interim deadlines for each stage of the process, allowing time to gather and process feedback from others.
  2. If you plan to use an editor or proofreader, contact them early in the process, give an estimated word count and ask for an estimated price, and find out how long it will take them to process your document. Ask them to pencil your project into their calendar.
  3. Do your research: make use of in-house writing guidelines and understand your organisation's style guide (or the guide of the publisher) and follow it from the outset - this includes following the accepted style for citations and references. Doing this saves the time and money in having them fixed (or fixing them yourself) later. If you don't have a style guide, then keep track of your decisions as you go and be as consistent as possible with spelling and formatting.
  4. What's the purpose of your document? To inform, instruct, persuade, entertain? Knowing this will help you to choose an appropriate style and focus your writing.
  5. Know your audience and write with them in mind. Ask yourself the following questions: What's their motivation for reading your document? How much time do they have? What's their reading level? Do they have a good understanding of the subject already? Can they understand the industry jargon?
  6. There are two main ways of approaching a document: a) Brainstorm and write a basic structure ('skeleton') first, then 'flesh' the skeleton out when you write the main text; or b) Start writing in a stream of consciousness and then re-order your thoughts into sections later.
  7. Guide your reader by giving them an overview of what you are going to say, then the details, and finally wrap up with an overview of what you've said. The structure helps the reader to organise the information mentally, and the repetition helps retention.
  8. Break your text up with short and descriptive headings, plenty of white space and visuals that complement your message. Also consider using bullet lists and tables to organise information. This helps to add interest and avoid reader fatigue.
  9. Use plain English where possible, and above all, be concise. Clichés are often used because they express an often-used concept well. See if you can find a fresh way to say it instead.
  10. Have at least two people read the draft and give constructive feedback.
  11. Try not to take suggested changes personally - they may bring big improvements to your publication. Written English is just as much craft as science, and people have varying opinions about the 'right' way to write. Even editors will argue among themselves about the minute details.
  12. Use your computer's spell check, but with caution. Analyse each suggested change before accepting.
  13. If the document is intended for the public domain, or is an important internal publication, consider having it professionally edited. Written English is tricky to master. If your writing isn't clear or has spelling mistakes and poor punctuation, you risk losing or confusing your readers, undermining your credibility, and wasting your efforts and your readers' time.
  14. Have your publication proofread just before it's published to remove any last, and potentially embarrassing, errors.
  15. Keep improving your writing skills. There are many excellent books available on this topic - we especially recommend 'Clear, Concise, Compelling: how to write less and achieve more' by Simon Hertnon.

We wish you all the best and excellent results!

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