Skip to content

How to Write Well

2012 December 19
by Greg Satell

I find writing difficult.  Words don’t always come easy, I’m an absolutely horrendous typist and I often don’t have the first clue what I should be writing about.

Nevertheless, many seem to think that I write well, in spite of my deficiencies.  I publish a successful blog and have managed to consistently push out two posts per week for over three years (which is much harder than you’d think).  So I guess, in the final analysis, I’m not completely bereft of talent.

The more salient point, however, is that most people write extremely poorly.  For all the talk I hear about the power of social media and the rise of amateurs, most of the writing I see on the Web is completely incoherent.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  I’ve found that through following a few simple rules and some practice, your writing can vastly improve.

Clarity First

Most people sit down to write something because they have an idea they think is clever, interesting and impressive.  In order to do it justice, they want to show that the same things are true of themselves.  Majestic word choice, long winded explanations of context and obscure references do nothing but confuse and cloud your point.

Another red herring is obsessing over style guides and minor points of grammar that your teacher hounded you about in grade school.  I know my grammar isn’t perfect, but I’m not too worried about it.  If people can understand what I’m trying to tell them, then I’m using the English language appropriately.

And that’s really what’s important.  You write to get a point across and that’s all you should be concerned with.  Not big words or academic allusions or what some prude thinks of where you put your commas and semicolons (who knows what to do with those things anyway?).

Just try to say what you think people need to know and say it clearly.

Headlines Need to Sell a Clear Benefit

The single most important thing I’ve found from writing a blog is the importance of headliners and openers.  They are, without a doubt, the most important thing to learn how to do well.   I would go as far to say that unless you get your headline and opener right, it really doesn’t matter what’s below.  Nobody will read it.

First, let’s take on headlines, where the central task is to sell a key benefit for someone deciding whether to read you.  Unfortunately, some people simply blandly describe their article or, worse, try to get clever.  Here’s an example of two particularly unappealing headlines from a major corporate marketing blog that shall remain unnamed:

Q2 Vertical Highlights From (Name Withheld)

Digital Differentiation And Doing More Than Just Owning A Hammer

The first really tells me nothing.  I’m not even sure what a “vertical highlight” is.  I can merely deduce that the writer has come across a bunch of data and can’t attribute any particular importance to any of it.  The second alludes to a hammer analogy that I’m not privy to and so I can assume it’s not for me.  Neither seem worth reading.

The title for this post is “How to Write Well”.  It tells people who would like to write better that they can find some advice here.  That’s a very clear benefit.  Posts that promise to dispel myths or tell truths also work nicely.  If you want to improve your headlines, I highly recommend Contently’s excellent guide that includes a variety of formats that you can experiment with.

In the end though, your headlines need to suit you, your personality and who you are writing to.  Business Insider, for instance, writes truly magnetic headlines, but they are a bit over the top for my taste.  They work, but they’re not for me.

Close the Deal With An Effective Opener

While the headline will get people to the door, it’s your opening lines that determine whether people will want to walk through or not.  The job of a first paragraph is not to summarize or even to introduce what comes after, but to sell the value of reading further.

There’s lots of different ways to do that.  I opened this post with an admission that I’m not very comfortable writing (which is true, by the way).  Other techniques are to start with a startling statistic, use a quote from a famous person or even simply ask a question. (Copyblogger again has some useful advice on openers here).

Much like headlines, you should avoid the urge to be mysterious or profound, but instead make your opening paragraph as inviting as possible.  If you can pique the reader’s interest here, chances are they’ll make the effort to read through the rest of your article.

Make an Outline

The one simple thing that few people take the trouble to do is create an outline before they start.  It should only take a minute or so to jot down some simple ideas and maybe some notes or links to support them.  Once you have created a general structure and logic, it’s much easier to write in more depth.

Another benefit of creating outlines is that, because they are far easier than writing an entire article and they can be done quickly, you don’t have to set aside time to do them, but can bang ’em out whenever the mood hits you.  I almost always have a few outlines waiting to be turned into posts once I have the time to sit down and work through them.

Most of all, outlines simply help you organize your thoughts.  If your outline makes sense, chances are your article (or e-mail or presentation) will too.

Write for Reading

Probably the most common mistake is not to write for readers.  You want to make your writing as easy as possible for people to digest.  This isn’t hard, a lot can be achieved with simple structure.

Avoid big blocks of text.  Put in subheadings to help the reader navigate through (another way in which outlines become useful) and keep your paragraphs short.  Also, if you’re creating a site, pay ample attention to fonts.  They should be big enough to read easily (and please never use white fonts on a black background).

Most of all, write in a conversational tone and use natural language.  Don’t insert a long or an esoteric word if a short. more common one will do.  Don’t get hung up on 4th grade grammar in a misguided attempt to sound more educated.  As a terrific writer I know likes to say, “if one doesn’t talk that way, one shouldn’t write that way.”

Writing is Rewriting

I’m sure there are some very talented people who can run through a first draft and need minimal editing.  I’m not one of them and I’ve met few people who can do it that way.  For most of us, writing is rewriting.  It takes a few tries to get it to where it needs to be (and a thesaurus never hurts either).

For this blog, I’ve found it helpful to keep a reserve.  I rarely post the same day that I write, but often leave my posts to sit for days, sometimes weeks, before I put them up. That gives me the opportunity to revisit what I write, correct mistakes and explain my original idea in a simpler more accessible way.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter that I’m not the world’s most talented writer.  I don’t need to be.  By following some simple, common sense rules and a little extra effort revising what I’ve written, I can say what I want to and get my point across, which is all that really matters.

– Greg

8 Responses leave one →
  1. ivan permalink
    December 19, 2012

    hey! Good post Greg! Useful and practical – and well written 🙂

  2. December 19, 2012

    Thanks Ivan!

    – Greg

  3. Arjun permalink
    December 19, 2012

    Hi, its really awesome Greg ! I learned much from this. Thanks for sharing this !



  4. December 19, 2012

    Glad it was helpful Arjun. Have a great holiday!

    – Greg

  5. Rick permalink
    December 19, 2012

    Thanks for the article. Any suggestions in regards to an online class or site that gives folks help who don’t write so good?

    Thanks again,

  6. December 19, 2012

    Check out the copyblogger links I put in the post. There’s a wealth of good writing tips there.

    – Greg

  7. Pascal permalink
    December 24, 2012

    Hi Greg,

    let me take this opportunity to thank you for all your posts!

    i am not reading them all: who can be interested in everything, right? and i don’t always agree. who agrees with everything, right? :). But the ones I read brought me a lot.

    take care and merry christmas!


  8. December 24, 2012

    Thanks Pascal. That’s very kind of you. I’ll be posting my top posts of 2012 on Wednesday, so you can catch up on any you missed:-)

    Thanks for your support. Have a great holiday!

    – Greg

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS