As a writer, I admit I’m especially sensitive to bad writing when I see it out in the wild. And I feel like I’ve seen a lot of it lately: just content-factory crap getting churned out by the bucketful, if I can be so blunt. So much of it lacks originality, empathy, or even a clear point of view. I’m not sure what’s making writing worse these days. Is it politics? AI? Is there some new horrible algorithm demanding subpar articles?
Some would argue that it doesn’t matter; people just skim articles anyway because nobody has time to read. But I know that’s not true. I bet you can remember the last time you didn’t have time to read an article but you did it anyway because it was just too good. I know I can.
Good writing matters. What you write for your company or brand is there for a purpose—image, engagement, motivation, and ultimately action. If your writing doesn’t move readers to those goals, you’ve wasted your time (and maybe even damaged your brand). Good writing doesn’t always come easy, but the results are worth the effort.
With that in mind, I have 7 rules that work especially well for good business communication writing.
1) Remember that reading is visual
It may surprise you to learn that design principles are incredibly important to good writing. Yes, writing is basically and technically using words to communicate. But you can’t disconnect writing from visuals. They are intrinsically connected.
Images further the copy and the copy furthers the image.
Especially online, readers need the visuals to pique their interest in what you’re saying. The right image literally illustrates your text and makes your words come alive. No matter how skilled a writer you are, you should know that graphic designers are your friends.
The shape of your writing is art.
In visual design, you learn a critical rule of thumb early on: namely, that variety is king. So, you learn to incorporate varied shapes and sizes in your design. You utilize odd numbers in groupings where you can. Why? Our eyes naturally jump and wander over what we’re viewing. Our brains are always actively scanning and seeking the next novel thing, and too much repetition is boring.
The way the words appear on the page is an image itself – and that’s MORE so online. The whole piece of your writing is a shape. When you can make your writing visually interesting, the reader is more likely to actually read what you’ve written.
How does all this translate into writing an article?
Vary sentence lengths. Don’t be afraid of the short sentence. It allows your reader to pause and take a mental breath.
Use spacing. Always increase the line spacing before you increase the size of the type.
Take the time to find images that illustrate your words in an original and captivating way.
2) Ban word echoes
One of the worst crimes I see committed in writing is the practice of word echoing. I know that you could probably come up with worse things than that, but I really think it’s just the worst.
See what I mean?
Would it be so difficult to use ‘lazy,’ ‘boring,’ ‘shoddy,’ or even ‘horrible’ instead? They’re still at an accessible reading level but are more colorful and evocative than ‘worst.’
This is a personal pet peeve of mine, but I know I’m not alone.
After you’ve completed a piece, don’t hit ‘send’ or ‘publish’ just yet. Take a beat or two and go back over your words. If you find a repetition, use an online thesaurus (if necessary) and liven up your prose.
3) Stop hashtag-ifying your communication
Yes, it’s true that as a society, we’re busier than ever. Some of us get our only news through fast social media scrolling, and word hashtags were created so that we could find topics as quickly as possible and join the conversation. Not a bad purpose on its own, but clearly, we have taken it too far. In our quest for shortcuts, we have cheated the real meaning of ideas.
A primary example: the word woke. It started out meaning to be aware of racial and social injustice. It’s been misused so often that many people think it refers to being sort of overly politically correct, or even a catchall term for everything they don’t like about the opposing political party. When someone hijacks the meaning of a word, you have to beware when using it.
Language morphs, and meanings of all kinds of words change over time. So when you write, be conscious of using shortcuts to explain an idea that might not appear to a reader as you meant it.
I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one.
– Mark Twain
4) Avoid yogababble
When WeWork published their IPO prospectus in 2019, instead of focusing on what they actually did (rent desk space), they described their mission with phrases like “elevate the world’s consciousness.” Scott Galloway read through the prospectus and saw that their overly flowery, almost religious turns of phrase were poor attempts to disguise weak financials—and he coined the term “yogababble” to describe what he was seeing. He says that “Yogababble is an attempt to smear Vaseline over the lens of truth,” and that it’s everywhere. Peleton doesn’t sell exercise bikes, it sells “happiness.” Spotify doesn’t sell music, it “unlocks the potential of human creativity.” (I also really like Jeff Swystun’s evaluation of yogababble and WeWork, if you’re interested in reading more.)
This isn’t found only in mission statements. Businesses use it in messaging, branding, and internal communications. Does anyone know what they really mean when they talk about “customer enchantment?” I don’t. When I read those phrases that don’t mean anything, my eyes start to glaze and I usually make a fast exit.
Good writing is clear writing. Good business communication tells the reader what they need to do and what they’ll get out of it.
5) Incorporate storytelling
One of the constants of the human condition is that we love stories. A good story can elevate, connect, and motivate more than even the most cosmically-inspired yogababble.
It doesn’t have to be a long story. One of the most interesting writers, Malcolm Gladwell, simply pulls small observations about everyday things and connects them to make a point.
Personal examples, experiences, or observations grab attention. They illuminate what you’re about to say, or back up the point you’re trying to make, and make it more interesting. They’re original (because they’re yours). They convey authenticity. They connect with people.
It requires time and vulnerability to tell a personal story. You’re never going to be able to feed a few prompts into ChatGPT to get that original story. What you WILL get is an amalgamation of fluff. The fluff is what stops people from reading—not how long it might take to tell a truly compelling, captivating story.
6) Bare your feelings; don’t bury them
One of the wildest observations to come out of the 2016 elections was the popularity of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Opposite sides of the political spectrum, but popular for the same reason: their respective audiences viewed them as authentic, plain speakers who said what they thought and damn the consequences. Contrast that with the less-than-enthusiastic response to Hillary Clinton, who relied way too much on data and not enough on just talking to people.
If you can’t express authentic feelings about your brand, your product, or your initiative, your audience won’t feel it, either. If they don’t feel it, they won’t act on it.
7) Remember the basics
Write in declarative sentences. Say what you think.
Use active phrasing. Most people write using passive phrases or verbs—“The ball was thrown by Sally,” instead of “Sally threw the ball.” Bring everything to the most present, active tense.
Don’t write to a word count. If your writing is full of twin adjectives like “connected and engaged,” remember that editing is a virtue.
Easy reading is damn hard writing.
– Nathaniel Hawthorne
If you’re struggling with your messaging, branding, or storytelling, I’d love to help. Email me at [email protected].