Friday, March 30, 2012

A Writing Journey: Undoing Everything I Believed About Writing



By Angela Bevacqua, Senior Communications Specialist, Community First Foundation

I used to think that writing was a natural talent. You either had it or you didn’t. A talented person could just conjure up lovely “turns of phrase,” as I’ve been known to call them. My frustration with writing would mount when these lovely “turns of phrase” didn’t naturally flow from my pen.

No--I would belabor every sentence. My writing would become more and more convoluted, dry, and awkward. I focused on perfect grammar, which only added to the struggle. I was trying so hard to impress. So of course I started to loathe writing and my confidence plummeted.

Thank goodness for a best friend, and stellar writer, who became my writing mentor. I traded sushi dinners for writing lessons.

I marveled at what he taught me. His writing was simple but meaningful. It flowed. In his books and essays he wrote about complex ideas (psychology and spirituality) in a way that anyone could understand. What a remarkable feat.

I learned that the real purpose for writing—particularly in the business world—is…duh… communication. The words and sentence structure should not get in the way of the ideas.

I practiced and practiced and practiced to simplify and enliven my writing. I studied what worked in magazines, newspaper articles (journalists are good at simplifying and writing for the layperson), ads, and promotional marketing.

And what did I discover? It’s actually easier to write this way, once you free yourself up from trying to look smart with big words and long, showy sentences.

Is there Help for Business Writing?
Business writing is rife with convoluted, lingo-ridden copy. It hinders us in so many ways: we lose the reader (zzzzz), our ideas don’t come through, and we stray from our point.

As a communications writer I need to be adept at drawing in the reader so they care about who the Foundation is, what we do for the community, and how to become involved. I’ve pinned the following writing tips above my desk, and refer to them often:

  • Avoid industry jargon
  • Avoid empty phrases
  • Avoid too much detail: people can’t process several ideas in one sentence
  • Enliven with quotes
  • Use punchy writing – active voice and colorful words
  • Lead with a "hook"
  • Use short intro sentences
  • Get into the mind of readers: help them, make your article relevant to them
  • Write as if the reader knows nothing about the topic (don’t assume anything)
  • More narrative: suck the reader in
  • Call to action at the end (spread the word, contact us)

In an upcoming blog I will share examples to illustrate the ideas above.

Recommended Reading
I highly recommend this essay by Mary Ann Hogan called Avoid Jargon andWrite Clearly: a Recipe for Changing the World (requires Chronicle of Philantrhopy subscription). In it she talks about the flaws in writing by nonprofit leaders and “readability” as measured by a tool called a Flesch score. If you care about improving your writing and helping your organization, it’s a great read.