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How to write words that work

We all write hundreds, if not thousands of words every day. From email correspondence to marketing materials and reports – the words you choose matter. Get them right and you can use them to educate, inform, persuade and inspire. Get them wrong, and it’s all too easy for your reader to move on. But with so many words (and languages) to choose from, it can be hard to know where to start. That’s why we asked our Senior Content Consultant, Jennifer Ruthe, to share some essential tips to help get the words behind your marketing communications flowing.

Laying the ground work…

Before you start writing, you need to take some time to understand your audience, style and purpose. Why? Because the language you use for a social media post will be very different to the words you use on your website, in a marketing brochure or report. If you are not clear about who you’re talking to and the ‘rules’ of the channel you are using, it will be difficult to tailor your message and approach accordingly. You also need to give yourself the time to get to know your subject – to talk to people, do background reading and any necessary research.

Finally, before you press ‘go’, ask yourself why you are writing this specific piece at this specific time. If you don’t know the answer, your work will lack the focus, clarity and purpose it needs to make a lasting impact.

Getting into the flow…

When you’re clear on the above, it’s time to start writing. It sounds simple, but there can be nothing more daunting than a blank page. That’s why, before I go into the technicalities, I want to share a few tips and tricks to help unlock your inner writer.

  1. First, give yourself the space to write: Writing is a process. It takes time, skill and practice to find the right words and you need to give yourself the headspace to do this. Personally, I need a cup of tea and a solid chunk of disruption-free time (preferably in the morning) to really focus. If you’re busy, mute your emails, WhatsApp and messenger for a few hours. Give your head the space it needs to get creative. Because that’s what writing is. Even if you’re writing medical or academic content, give yourself the space to embrace the process.
  2. Write first, edit later: Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be written. You can go back and edit it later. For now, you need to get all your ideas down so you can see them and start moving them around (a bit like when you’re organising the office and things get messy before they get better!).
  3. Start in the middle: It might be a process, but that doesn’t mean it has to be linear. Start with the section you feel most comfortable writing, and let it flow from there. You will feel better once you’ve got some words on the page, and you can shape the argument up as you go. Waiting on facts, data and information? Place-hold it, highlight the gap and fill it in later. What’s important here is that you have the points you need to build an outline and shape.
  4. Let it rest: You will love something one day and will see everything you need to change the next. If time allows, give yourself a few days away from your piece before you start editing it up into a second, third (or fifteenth) version.
  5. Do something else: It might not feel like the most productive move, but even when you’re doing something else, your brain will be working on your words. If you’re suffering from writer’s block, walk to the shops, make a cup of coffee, or have a chat with a colleague. You will soon find the words you need.

Pay attention to technicalities

As a professional writer, I spend a lot of time crafting words and reading other people’s. Of course, the style and technicalities will vary depending on the piece you’re writing, but there are some general rules I’ve developed over the years that will help keep your content fresh and accessible.

  • Keep jargon to a minimum: Health communications inevitably come with a lot of technical terms and jargon. If you can, try to only use it when you need it. When it comes down to it, good writing is readable writing, and if your language is too dense and jargon-heavy you risk alienating the people that read it.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
– Albert Einstein

  • Watch your sentence length: If you can’t get it out in one breath, it’s too long. Generally, for marketing copy, I try and cap my sentences at 20-30 words, but go up to 35 (or even 40) for more technical pieces. I also try to bring in a bit of variety and drop a few short sentences and one-word wonders. Mix it up. Use each sentence to bring rhythm and flow to your work and take your reader on a journey.

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important. So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.”
– Gary Provost

  • Be prepared to do a re-write: By definition, a draft is a ‘preliminary version’. That means it’s going to change. That’s okay. You didn’t get it wrong or waste your time. It’s all part of the process. Sometimes you have to know what doesn’t work to find what does, and a good writer will always be prepared to edit and rework as needed.

“Good writing is essentially rewriting.”
– Roald Dahl

  • Get to the point: It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a direct mailer, website copy or report. Don’t circle around the point. Make it.
  • Double-check your structure: When you write, you take your reader on a journey. Don’t assume they have GPS. Make sure you structure your information logically and that it flows from one point to the next.
  • Think about your meaning: Semantics matter, so take some time to consider yours. As writers, it’s important that we don’t allow our words to perpetuate assumptions, impose stereotypes, victimise or patronise. The devil is in the detail, and you need to make sure that your words are inclusive, empowering and respectful.
  • Format it: It’s not technically writing but you need to think about your presentation. Not every piece needs to be designed, but even an email should be well formatted and presented. If your text is too small, your paragraphs too long, or your font hard to read – people won’t. For me, a good piece of writing is like a good meal. If it looks appetising, people will want to read it.

Build proofreading into the process

No matter how good your proofing skills, I promise you there will be a mistake. Our eyes are trained to skim the sentences we read, so if you’ve written it, chances are you won’t see it. There are some online tools to help with this (e.g. PerfectIt and Grammarly), I also use the ‘read aloud’ function on Word so I can hear how it sounds and listen out for mistakes. And of course, nothing will replace asking a colleague (or several colleagues) to do some proofreading. The more eyes the better – and don’t forget to double-check any numbers, data and graphics.

And finally, ENJOY it

Maybe I should have made this point first, but do you know why I specialise in copywriting? I love it. I love using words to shape an argument, share a message or tell a story. So whatever piece you’re writing, relax and enjoy the process – relish the power of words, and be proud of what yours can do.

Because if you feel it when you’re writing it, I guarantee your readers will too.