Friday, March 13, 2015

Five questions to ask yourself if you aim to be a good writer

As communications and public relations professionals, a question that we must constantly ask ourselves is that if there is one thing that our stakeholders/ clients respect us for what would it be? 
With the growing significance of owned media and social media, a sustained career in communications will increasingly depend on content writing skills – be it on the agency side or on the corporate side. I agree that content is not limited to words, but in this article I’m primarily looking at the use of words.   

So if anyone wants to inculcate good writing skills, particularly business or technology writing, here are some questions to ask yourself everyday:
  1. Am I reading the right content? I know of people who skim through newspapers, multiple sites including Twitter and FB looking only for their company or sector information. This knowledge may get them news/ information but does not usually improve writing skills. One has to set dedicated time aside for in-depth reading such as Op-Eds, business analysis/ technology trends (in print or online) that provide the larger perspective and use the appropriate terms. And despite the work pressure, stick to the reading habits. It’s this knowledge that would help bring depth into writing. Communicators often have to work directly with CEOs/ senior management. CEOs only value a perspective if it’s backed by facts and data. No matter what the form of writing, it’s super important that we are thorough with the facts and can prove our point, else we could gradually lose credibility, not just as an individual but also as a function.                                                                                                                                            
  2. Is this the right word in the given context? As a communications professional, one is expected to understand how every word fits into a context and makes a difference to the sentence and the overall piece. In the Roman Jakobson model of communication, context is one of the core functions of communication. Keep questioning- Is this the right word for the thought that is being expressed? Of course it comes with experience, but don’t let that be an excuse for not trying hard enough.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     
  3. Are my thoughts flowing from the core message/s?  A good writer has to be a good storyteller. A mistake that we tend to make is to stuff too many thoughts into one paragraph thereby losing the reader’s interest. A rule of thumb is not more than three key messages in any article/ story else we’re wasting our time and the reader’s. Frontload the message and use the rest of the article to give supporting arguments. But again, a bunch of statements/ arguments in any random order don’t make the content convincing. The arguments have to flow, one leading into another. Many a times, getting the flow in place takes longer than getting the right words.                                                                                                                                                           
  4. How many words can I cut out keeping the message intact? Today, it’s about saying more with less. The best way is to notice how one speaks. If one is able to convey the thought in the first 30 seconds in as few words as possible, the person is usually close to being a good writer, if he/ she isn’t already. Tear down the mansion of words (and jargons in technology writing). Sometimes, one needs to be cruel with one’s own writing because in the end, the content is not for me, it’s for my reader and at no point can I afford to forget that.
When I first read Mark Twains’ letter to one of his students dated 1880, the following quote stuck to my mind.

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
His words couldn’t be more true in today’s shrinking attention spans and information overload.                                                                                                                                                
5. Lastly, is my content shareable? The platform and the tool used to deliver the content goes a long way in determining whether it is engaging, easy to share and to search. Use of visuals, videos, anecdotes, cross referencing and linking to other websites as well as allowing reader comments are all useful in making it worth reading. Sometimes, an infographic can explain what 1000 words cannot. Good writing is about making good choices with respect to the tools that you want to play with.

I’m sure there are some more tips and perspectives that readers can add here and I would love to hear them.

In the words of Stephen King, “At its most basic we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style . . . but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.”

So are you ready to create magic with your writing?