Archive | business

How readable is your writing?

That 20 page document outlining in detail the research, findings and recommendations of your latest project is easy to read, right? You know the subject in detail. You’ve been working on it for months. It’s obvious… isn’t it?

To you, it may be. But what about your audience? The person who picks it up and reads it for the first time? What does it tell them?

Do they look at it and groan, put off by the thought of reading pages and pages of tight-packed text with long sentences and paragraphs that go on, and on and on? Will they be baffled by jargon? Stumped by acronyms? Wonder why on earth this is relevant to them?

Is it well organised and structured in a logical way? Does it have a beginning, middle and end? Do your conclusions actually conclude anything?

These are all questions and challenges that came up for discussion during one of my business writing training sessions.

There’s lots you can do to make your documents easy to read, starting with thinking about your audience and writing for them, not yourself.

RAdding an apostrophe eadability checker

Here’s one little tip to see how easy your writing is to read:

When you do a grammar and spelling check on a Word document, (because you all do that don’t you?) did you know you can also see how easy it is to read?

Word can show you readability statistics. To turn this option on:

  1. Click the File tab, and then click Options.
  2. Click Proofing.
  3. Under When correcting spelling and grammar in Wordmake sure the Check grammar with spelling check box is selected.
  4. Select Show readability statistics.

Next time you’ve finished checking the spelling and grammar of your document you’ll see information about its reading level.

Sadly, just having the statistics may not help you understand whether it’s easy to read or not. So for a quick guide to what the numbers actually mean and an online version of the scorecard, I like this readability checker from The Writer.

Hullaballoo

That was my favourite word on Tuesday. It sounds like a tree full of chimpanzees with a bowl of trifle.

A perfect word for a day of travelling north on the train. Watching the waves and the rain through the window. Arriving in Edinburgh to the skirl of the pipes and a bustle of excitement at visiting the Book Festival.

Meeting Lesley in a whirl of a hug and setting off walking, talking ten to the dozen. Drifting through the street theatre, finding a warm café and settling down with cake and coffee and more chat.

Dodging the raindrops and ducking into the gallery in search of art and landscapes and portraits that looked freshly painted. Smiling at Vincent’s silver trees and light shadows between the clouds on a hillside.

Parting with plans ready made for another meeting. And then solo, finding my way through the street magic to a quiet enclave of tents, books and stories.

My favourite writer greeted with affection by an appreciative crowd. Remembering the last time we were together in this place when two mischievous authors tested the skills of the sign language interpreter.  Mr Gaiman tells his enraptured gathering of short stories that won’t stay short. Of the old country over the duckpond. Of the older country that sank and the even older one that blew up.

Speaking with affection for one of his best loved characters and how she came about. Mixing the inherent sexism of language, with the essence of a myth of the beauty of death. “It’s a great job. It gets you out and about. You get to meet people. You get to meet everyone.”

Of the unprompted applause when he speaks of The Doctor’s Wife and the best ever answer to the question, “What’s your favourite book?”

And stories, stories, stories. Those told and loved. Those waiting for the right moment. The rare one that came dream bound and perfect. Going to Hell in a hot air balloon. Vikings sailing to Jerusalem. A wild head full of dark, bright imaginings and always the promise of more.

And later still, more writers, more words from Dark Angels Jamie Jauncey and John Simmons. Words loved and hated. Words mangled out of meaning. And the clear sharp minds that cut through like a skater on a lake. A reminder that writing should be kind, human. That being a writer is about simply being. Right now in the moment.

When I return home, much later and more weary, a million shades and colours dance in my dreams.

My top ten tips for business writing

As a copywriter, I write for many different businesses. Here are my top ten tips for improving your writing, whether you’re communicating for business or writing for pleasure.

1. Begin with one grain of sand

In other words, you have to start somewhere. So state your purpose and outline what you’re trying to do. I often find it helps to start with a statement of what I’m trying to do: e.g ‘Write an email to let customers know about this week’s special offers’. Or to start by finishing a sentence e.g. ‘My customers would like to…’

You may not use these words in your finished communication, but they can help you to get over the fear of the blank page.

2. Be a reporter

Ask the questions who, what, where, when, how and why? And answer them. These are the questions that have served me well through my years working at the BBC and then as a copywriter for big business. They will help you get the facts and structure your story.

photographerWhen it comes to writing clear communications, imagine you’re writing for a quality newspaper or news website.

Don’t pack everything into the first sentence. Start with the most important piece of information, then add to it. Try to stick to one idea per sentence or paragraph.

3. Just do it (no critics allowed)

The best way to write something is just to write it. Banish your inner critic.

No one gets to read your first draft anyway. No one cares if it’s spelt wrong or you missed an apostrophe at this stage. Just get on and do it. You can go back and refine things later.

4. Be active

Choose the active, rather than the passive voice eg. ‘I am doing this’, rather than ‘this is being done’.

It makes you sound more involved, interested and less shifty.

5. Sell the sizzle

Every time we write in business we’re trying to get a response. It’s not just about increasing our sales (though that’s a distinct advantage), but also about how people feel about doing business with us. So we have to write persuasively and that means talking about benefits not features. Answer the question ‘What can it do for me?’

Think about perfumes – their feature is they make you smell nice, but they’re sold on the benefit that smelling nice will encourage the object of your admiration to fall at your feet. Answer the question ‘What can it do for me?’

6. Leave it

autumn leavesIt’s easy, particularly when you know your subject really well to get wrapped up in what you’ve written, to lose perspective. Take some time to away from it and come back with new eyes.

It can be as little as a few minutes while you make a phone call, grab a coffee, whatever – but try to read it as though you’ve never seen it before.

I’ve found it really helps to read things backwards, starting at the end and working back to the beginning. You may realise there’s a better place to start.

7. Prune it

Read through what you’ve written and look for places where you may have repeated yourself.

Look for the businesses and doublespeak; the handy jargon and short cuts we might use everyday but that make little sense outside our own circle. Cut big, then cut small.

Pruning also means you have to let some areas grow. Sometimes it might be better to take a couple of sentences to describe what something does instead of referring to what it’s called.

So rather than telling me it’s a personal GPS system, you might want to describe it as a gadget that helps you pinpoint exactly where you are.

8. Map it

Help your reader out by signalling where you’re going.

  • New paragraphs help single out thoughts.
  • Bullets and lists are great for drawing attention to things – and they’re easy to read.
  • Subheadings help the reader to skim through to key points of interest, or to pick up reading from where they left off

9. Check it

Ideally you shouldn’t proofread your own copy, but in reality most of us have to. Use your spell check if it’s an electronic document (make sure you’ve chosen English dictionary), but remember it’s not infallible. Take the time to read it through again.

Read it aloud. Start from the end. Turn the paper upside down. Read every word one by one. If you spot a mistake, look for the one next to it.

10. Test it

Does your piece of writing do what you set out to do? Get a second opinion. Does your tester understand it? Did they encounter any mental speed bumps? Bits where they had to go back and read it again? Did they spot any errors?

There are lots of tools that help you track digital communications these days, so you can see how well your email, website, or even social media is engaging with your customers. Is there a keyword or phrase that works well for you. what time of day are your customers most responsive. Take note of your analytics and look at areas where you could improve in future.