How can you make your writing engaging?
Or, more specifically, how can you make your business writing engaging?
Why, surely that’s a contradiction in terms! Right …?
A lot of people do seem to make a distinction between 1) Work Writing, and 2) Pretty Much Every Other Kind of Writing. It essentially amounts to this: type 2 has the potential to be entertaining and engaging and type 1 … doesn’t. After all, prestigious prizes are awarded for literature, journalism and non-fiction writing. Meanwhile, the kind of writing they have to do at work can be, yes, functional – but probably also dry. That’s just how it is.
You may be unsurprised to hear we don’t think that’s true. OK, you might not win a Pulitzer Prize for your latest proposal, this month’s management report or that email you wrote to Stuart in Accounts. But you can make the reading experience for your potential client, the management team or old Stu a more interesting one. Better still, doing so will make a huge difference to how successful and effective what you’ve written is. We live in a world of too many documents and too little time, and anything that’s actually a pleasure to read already has an advantage.
So here’s how you can help topple the myth that business writing has to be B-O-R-I-N-G:
Begin at the beginning
Begin with your reader. This is always our number one rule, simply because who you’re writing for should colour all the decisions you make when writing. A reader is much, much more likely to be engaged by what you’ve written if it feels relevant to them. Let’s face it, if someone concludes by sentence three that this particular document or email has no relevance to them, what do you suppose the odds of them continuing to read are? Yep – not good.
Ideally, you’d be writing about a topic that already interests them, naturally – but there again, you may not have a choice. And even if you know they’re unlikely to be instantly gripped, you still have the chance to find a way to make it seem as important as you can to them. Ask yourself these questions every time you write, to prime yourself.
And it might sound obvious, but be clear on what you want to say before you get going. Plan the structure first. Combining the thinking and writing processes tends to result in a message that meanders all over the place. And (tough love time), you can’t expect anyone to follow you round the houses on the off-chance they find a point along the way.
Hook ’em in
Engaging writing has to engage from the start. Those first lines are when your reader is weighing up whether to keep going or do something else instead (like reading another document or email, checking social media or simply leaving their desk and grabbing a coffee). It’s at this point that you set their mood for facing the rest. Clearly, it doesn’t bode well if their reaction to the first few lines is, ‘Wow, this is going to be a slog’. So make your introduction work hard to captivate from the beginning. It’s the gatekeeper to the rest of your work.
Of course, the reader isn’t the only one who may find this section problematic. You will still be getting into the swing of writing when you compose your introduction (unless you’re writing it in a panic at the end). This makes it easy to start out a bit long-winded, waffly or flat. But an introduction must have impact. So keep your first sentence or two tight, and definitely don’t go in with reams of background.
One great technique you can use to kick off is the surprise intro: a strong statement that – you’ve guessed it – will come as a surprise and shake the reader out of autopilot. Something like ‘More than 60 per cent of Acme Widgets’ business comes from just 20 customers’ or ‘One in six people are at risk of flooding in England’ has a good chance of making them want to read on to find out more.
Hands up everyone who likes working really hard to understand something. Thought so.
It’s very important to make your writing effortless to read. The best writing is ‘invisible’. This means that the language used doesn’t draw attention to itself – it’s just a stealth vehicle for the message, which then seems to arrive in your reader’s head as if from nowhere.
And how do you achieve this? Using simple language is a good place to start. Make short words your first choice. Mind you, what this doesn’t mean is that you shouldn’t ever use longer words. It means, when you do, you do so because the longer word is the best fit, not because it seems like a high-class upgrade. So, you might put ‘utilise’ in place of the shorter ‘use’ for its specific meaning of employing something to do a job it wasn’t necessarily designed for. But replacing ‘help’ with ‘ameliorate’ won’t gain you extra points or frequent flyer miles – it just might lose you readers.
The point’s less about always using the shortest word and more about choosing words that are familiar – there’s where your knowledge of the reader comes in. Try to avoid a word that’s likely to send them off to the dictionary, or that could make them feel frustrated, small or stupid because they don’t know it. Treat jargon words the same way, and ban any that won’t be understood. (Do use ones that you’re sure will be a useful shorthand, though – again, it’s about knowing what’s appropriate for the reader.)
In fact, try to write more or less as you’d speak in a meeting: professional but conversational. Reading your work aloud can help to check your written voice is as natural as your speech.
Doing this will also remind you to pick verbs over the noun equivalent where you would say something using verbs – ‘we agreed‘ rather than ‘we reached an agreement‘, for example. The same goes for favouring the active voice, where you put the doer before what he, she or it did: ‘we discussed the matter’ not ‘the matter was discussed by us‘. (But if you would naturally say it in the passive, use the passive.)
You can draw on more conventions of conversation to engage a reader as you would a listener. Borrow its directness. Would you ever refer to yourself – or the other person – in the third person if you were having a chat? ‘Catie would like to determine if a cup of tea would be of value to the addressee.’ No-one wants to sit next to that person in the office.
Yet we often switch to this kind of indirect, detached language when we write. We’ve all seen it. Management would appreciate it if colleagues’ comments were received by Friday, says the memo to no-one in particular, as if written by a disinterested outsider.
But guess what? To be engaging, you have to engage with people. So use ‘you’ to address the reader if you can, plus the odd ‘I’, or ‘we’ for the company. You’ll sound much more human too.
And try using questions. Even closed ones with a simple yes/no answer can be powerful, as you can’t help but answer them in your head (can you?).
Make them see it, feel it and believe it
A common piece of advice in fiction writing is ‘show, don’t tell’ – but it applies just as well to business writing. Showing is more visual and convincing than just proclaiming a fact and hoping you’ll be believed.
Check if you’re relying too heavily on describing words, whether they’re describing things or actions. Either way, they can sound a bit thin if there’s nothing backing them up. So don’t just say ‘sales have been impressive’, get specific: say they’ve ‘doubled’ or ‘increased by 30 per cent in a month’. And don’t just call your team of trainers ‘experienced’ – say how many years they’ve been in the industry or whom they’ve successfully helped. What did that success look like? Did they increase productivity or sales? Be sure to put numbers in a context people can actually relate to.
Commit to what you’re saying. Confident words are compelling, while continually using hedge words like ‘perhaps’, ‘it’s possible’, and ‘it is our intention to’ will chip away at your reader’s faith in you.
Find your rhythm
When it comes to the sound of your writing, think less techno and more jazz. Mix up the length of your sentences to vary the rhythm and keep your reader (who will hear your words in their head) interested.
You probably can – and should – go much shorter with your sentences than you think, sticking to a maximum of 35 words and an average of 15–20. But variety is key. If they’re all similarly longish, it’ll be dull; all short and the effect is like that of being on a bus during rush hour – endless stop-starting, a sense of nausea and a desperate desire to escape.
Use punctuation to keep the rhythm interesting too – a strategically placed dash (like that one), for example, can add a nice dramatic pause. Meanwhile, brackets give the sense of an aside.
If you’re feeling particularly creative, you can play with some literary techniques that’ll make your writing more visual and memorable. One is alliteration – repeatedly using the same letter, as above in ‘stop-starting’ and ‘desperate desire’. The other is the power of three. No-one’s sure quite why, but three does indeed seem to be the magic number. One way you can exploit this is by illustrating with three examples, as (again) with those side effects of riding a bus, or the subheading ‘Make them see it, feel it and believe it‘.
There’s no need to overdo these last two tricks, but they do give your writing a bit more punch and staying power – which is why advertisers use them.
One last thing: remember that for your writing to be engaging, you have to be engaged while you’re writing it. Going through the motions won’t result in anything that sounds fresh, especially if you’re still getting used to trying out these techniques.
With all that in mind, let’s go forth and be engaging – yes, even at work. As well as giving everything we create the best chance at success, we just might make the world of business writing a bit more interesting. And that would indeed be something to prize.
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