Effective writing: Getting what you want with your words
Unless you’ve successfully mastered mind control, effective writing is all you have to drive the behaviour you want. Whether they’re heard or read, they have to be convincing, true and interesting enough to maintain attention. It seems easy enough, but if you think about how many times you say no as a consumer versus how many times you say yes, it’s actually not that easy at all.
Effective writing starts with a reason
It can be anything, as long as it’s single-minded and clear. “The human mind finds it challenging to make sense of more than one concept at a time,” says Ben Dermer, Senior Vice President of Development at Spin Master Toys. He says the idea of developing toys isn’t that different from developing copy. “If it’s super obvious what I want the kid and the parent to get from the toy, it has a much better chance of selling. The toys that try to be everything to everyone are the ones you find in the discount bin.” The same’s true for copy, he says: “Unfocused copy is worse than an unfocused toy because someone’s always going to buy the toy. No one’s ever going to buy from copy that confuses them.”
Effective writing answers this question:
“If you give me what I want, what am I going to give you?” If any part of your writing veers away from this question, it probably doesn’t belong in your piece.
This isn’t limited to selling stuff. The question holds just as true in an email to colleagues, an invitation to your birthday party or a resume. Marla Baum is the Head of People at Freckle IoT, and when she considers candidates, she’s always looking for what they are going to give her beyond their work experience. “I’ll usually skim their work timeline,” she says, “but I pay close attention to the profile or ‘about me’ section. That’s where I find out what and who I’m really getting and what I can really expect.”
And she says she doesn’t have time to sift through lines of jargon to get to the essence of a candidate. “If a candidate (proverbially) sends me around the world to understand who they are and how they can help the company, I’m not the kind of person to go along for the ride. I’ll throw out the resume and move on to the next one.
This leads us to the next characteristic of effective writing, and quite possibly the most important one.
Effective writing is economical
That’s not to say it necessarily has to be short. If your piece is 15,000 words, so be it. But make sure each word is adding value. A few ways to ensure this include:
- Cut out any information your audience already knows. You’re wasting your time and theirs.
- Avoid repeating yourself. It’s not easy when you’re trying to be persuasive, but it usually has the opposite effect because it’s patronizing.
- Use five-cent words over five-dollar words. Big words don’t make you look smart. They just take up space.
- The extra space gives your reader a chance to breathe. And big blocks of text are off-putting.
Effective writing is honest
In 1912, ad agency McCann Erickson opened their doors with the tagline “Truth Well Told.” A few of us have worked there at one point and they live by that mantra. It’s why they’re still in business 108 years later
Notice how “Truth Well Told” starts with truth. No one likes lies, and people don’t forget them. This is important to consider as you answer the question, “If you give me what I want, what am I going to give you?” Make sure you can deliver what you say you can.
Effective writing is proofed
The fastest way to turn off a reader is to demonstrate that their time is more valuable than yours. If you’re not willing to take the time to review your message before putting it out there, why should they take the time to consume it?
Effective writing ends on a high note
Be funny or hopeful or caring or aspirational. Because last impressions are just as important as first ones, and if you can leave people smiling, they’re much more likely to come back.