With today's thought leaders expected to be prolific writers and public speakers in addition to running successful companies, much of the conversation on writing centers around SEO tactics and discoverability. But what of the writing itself?

Algorithms change, but good writing never does. It's based on finding a connection with an audience and communicating ideas to them in a way that is clear and simple to understand. Let's get back to the basics and discuss some ways to improve the clarity and quality of your writing.

Trim the Fat

Nothing gets in the way of understanding like wordy sentences. We're told in grade school to "show" not "tell" when writing, and sometimes that manifests in the form of adjectives and adverbs galore. Why say that "a man sat at a desk" when you could say that "a very tall man sat languidly at a large mahogany desk"?

It's certainly more descriptive and could make sense in a novel. But if you're writing a business blog post about workplace posture and its impact on productivity, what do those extra words contribute?

Mark Twain famously said, "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be." In other words, cut to the chase. When you finish a writing session, read back through your work and trim any words that don't actively help you get your point across.

Throw Out the Thesaurus

To quote another famous author, Stephen King said, "Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule." If you need a thesaurus to hunt for that word on the tip of your tongue, have at it. If, however, you're looking for a bigger, smarter, better word, put the thesaurus down. (Or close out of that tab.)

Good writing depends on a strong author voice. Using words that are outside your everyday vocabulary ultimately alters that voice. Chances are that if you don't know what a word means, neither will your audience.

Write What You Know

This tip may be more appropriately titled "Write How You Know." Similar to the thesaurus rule, if you find yourself contemplating the complexities of English grammar, delete that sentence and start over. There's probably a more straightforward way to say the same thing.

This doesn't mean you should stay away from complex sentences entirely. When executed well, they can be just as clear as a simple subject-verb-object sentence with a lot more depth. But too often, we try to fit too many ideas or details into a sentence, bending the rules of grammar to accommodate them.

When you get hung up on the rules of grammar, let that be a signal that your audience may have a hard time following and that you may be straying from your voice. Reread the sentence and evaluate if there's a simpler way to say it.

Tell a Story

The easiest way to help your audience understand a complex idea is to provide an example. In other words, tell them a story.

If you were sitting at a dinner table with someone, how would you explain the idea? Rather than jumping into professional jargon, you'd try to tailor your explanation to that person. Because we don't see our audience when writing, it's easy to forget who they are and how we should talk to them.

Create an avatar for your audience. How old are they? What are they interested in? How do they speak? Before you start writing, picture your target reader and write directly to that person using stories you think they'd relate to.

Read

Reading is less a hack than a general rule of thumb for good writing. Research has shown that the more you read, the better you write. Divide your reading list into two buckets.

First, read content related to your industry. This may be articles, books, blogs, or industry newsletters. Get to know how the thought leaders of your industry write and pay special attention to their tone. Their audience is likely similar to yours, so look out for what they write that resonates.

Next, read the work of masters in different genres. Writing about personal success? Don't be afraid to branch out to self-help books or even fiction. Getting out of your usual reading patterns can help boost creativity and inspire you to think more broadly.

So the next time you sit down to write, don't forget the basics. Good writing is rooted in clear language and personal connection. If you find writing difficult or frustrating, come back to this idea and you'll find the process less overwhelming.

Published on: Nov 16, 2017