I’ll be the first to tell you that my grammar skills are average at best. I can’t write fiction to save my life. I’d probably be laughed out of most MFA programs if I ever decided to pursue higher education as a writer.
But what I can write – and what I write well – is marketing content for the web. By my most recent update (which is still woefully out-of-date), I’ve written more than 10 million words of this type of work. I’ve edited the work of countless others as I’ve transitioned from working as a solo freelancer to leading my content creation agency, Content Conquered.
I’ve worked closely with my clients to determine what works in the content I or my team creates for them – and I’ve distilled those lessons here for you today. Learn them. Live them. Love them.
Stop using the word “that”
Years ago, a client gave me a brilliant piece of advice I’ve remembered ever since: the word “that” is often unnecessary.
You might be reacting to that suggestion like I did at first; recoiling at the idea that such a seemingly important word could ever be superfluous. But try it for yourself and see.
In this section, I’ve used it twice where it’s necessary (“You might be reacting to that suggestion” or “recoiling at the idea that such an important word”). Take “that” out of both of those cases, and the sentences no longer make sense (unless, of course, I were to rework them).
But as I was initially writing these paragraphs, I had another instance of the word “that” in the sentence that originally read “Years ago, a client gave me a piece of advice that I’ve remembered ever since.” Take out “that” and the sentence still makes sense, making its usage entirely unnecessary.
Tighten up your own writing this way. Whenever you’re tempted to use the word “that,” challenge yourself to see if you can remove it without changing the meaning of your text.
Stop using the words “stuff,” “things” or “more”
Speaking of tightening up your language…
Have you ever written a list that’s two nouns with an “and more” hanging off the end? Have you ever subbed in the word “stuff” or “things” because you couldn’t think of a more precise descriptor?
Cut it out.
Say what you mean to say, in the way you mean to say it. Words like “stuff,” “things” and “more” are lazy alternatives for times when you aren’t willing to put in the rigorous thinking needed to communicate clearly.
Write the way you speak
Let me be clear. This article is geared towards web content writing, for which a conversational tone is standard. If you work in a more formal field like technical writing or legal writing, this suggestion likely doesn’t apply to you.
But if you’re one of the many writers grinding out blog posts and other copy intended for the web, one of the fastest ways to improve your writing is to simply start writing the way you speak.
It can be fun to show off a big vocabulary and particularly satisfying to string together a complex series of clauses into a long, flowery sentence. But remember that many guidelines suggest writing hit no higher than an 8th grade reading level.
Take the stuffiness and unnecessary formality out of your content by writing as if you were speaking to a friend. The natural consequence is that your finished project will be more engaging and fun to read for its eventual consumers.
Spend more time in the active voice
If you’ve tried writing the way you speak, but your content still reads too formal, check the amount of time you’re spending in the passive versus the active voice.
I see this all the time in the writing I edit from new contributors – sentences and fragments that suffer a loss of engagement due to their unnecessarily-wordy construction. The active voice is more appealing to read, and it’s more easily understood.
I’ll let the following graphic from Purdue University demonstrate the difference:
Vary the length of your sentences
Good writing has a mix of sentence structures, all of varying lengths. Short sentences. Long sentences. Together, they combine to create dynamic content that’s engaging to read and effective at conveying a central point.
(See what I did there?)
Mix it up. Don’t be afraid to chop long sentences into several smaller ones, or even to use incomplete sentences if they suit the needs of your content.
Cut your paragraph length
Join me in ending the reign of massive walls of content. Take a look through this article, and you’ll see no paragraphs longer than 2-5 sentences.
There’s a reason for that.
Most readers are inherently lazy. When confronted with lengthy paragraphs, they’re more likely to click away than they are to consume – let alone retain – your information.
Help them out by keeping your paragraphs short.
Great writers don’t become great on their own. They shop their work around, getting feedback on how they can improve.
Sometimes this happens when writers work with professional editors on their web content projects. But in other cases, writers have to seek it out on their own. You’ve got several different options if you find yourself in this latter boat:
- Join a writers’ community where workshopping is encouraged
- Ask a friend or family member to give you objective feedback
- Hire a professional editor yourself to help you polish a few key portfolio pieces
Don’t be afraid of getting feedback on your writing. It isn’t always comfortable to have another person evaluate and judge the content you’ve created, but it’s one of the fastest ways to improve your skills as a writer.
What other “down and dirty” tips would you add to this list? Leave me your best suggestions in the comments below: