11 Rules for Better Writing, or How Not to Use a Thesaurus

Typewriter by Flickr user Takashi Hososhima

(Flickr photo by Takashi Hososhima)

If You’re Struggling to Write Better Business and Marketing Copy, Here Are Several General Writing Tips that Will Help You Focus Your Skills.

My friend, a middle-school teacher, tells a joke that goes like this:

He asked his students to write essays about their winter-break vacations. One student wrote, “My family went skiing. It was good.”

My friend admonished him, “That’s fine, but ‘good’ is such a bland word. Can’t you think of something else that conveys the experience better? Try using a thesaurus to find a more exciting word than ‘good.’ ”

After consulting the thesaurus, the student turned in his second attempt: “My family went skiing. It was an item for sale.”

Ah, ah! Funny, right?

Well, maybe if you’re a word nerd.

(If you don’t get the joke: Of all the possible synonyms the student could’ve used, he chose one that made zero sense — at least in this sentence. Rather than substituting another adjective, say, “stupendous” or “satisfactory,” he chose a different part of speech altogether — a noun, as in “goods and services.”)

The lesson: Beware the thesaurus. You can use it when writing. Just be absolutely certain you understand the full meaning of your chosen synonym and the context before plugging it in. It can change the meaning of your sentence, and perhaps your entire email message or website, entirely.

That’s one lesson we’ll cover in this post.

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As an editor for freelance writers and journalists, I’ve taught writing for several years to beginners, seasoned veterans and everyone in between. And along the way, I’ve continually run across common mistakes all writers, including me, commit.

In this guide, I’ll tackle basic writing for business and marketing purposes, which isn’t really that different than writing for publications. Most writing, at its core, is communicating information clearly to audiences — whether it’s one person or millions.

If it’s so simple, why do so many people get it so wrong?

We can usually trace writing mistakes back to breaking one of a handful of guidelines you should follow when writing nearly anything. I say “nearly anything” because this advice probably wouldn’t suit presidential speechwriters, Russian novelists or haiku enthusiasts.

But it might suit you.

In the end, writing — even for marketing and business purposes — is an art, like painting or composing music. You can get better, but only by understanding and practicing solid techniques.

Here are some of them.

1. Be simple

Write clearly and simply for your audience. (Photo by Nevit Dilmenwiki/Wikimedia Commons)

Write clearly and simply for your audience. (Photo by Nevit Dilmenwiki/Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t overwrite.

Construct clear and straightforward passages. Write shorter sentences. Write shorter paragraphs. You’re not writing a novel or poem. Sure, you want a welcoming and attractive voice, but you’re not trying to win the Man Booker Prize.

As you become a more comfortable and disciplined writer, you can experiment with varying your sentence length, weaving longer and shorter paragraphs together, and adding spice and nuance.

Structure is incredibly important, too. If you’re writing something lengthy, consider creating an outline first that clears a path for you: the major points you want to make, where you want to make them and how they should relate to each other.

Many writers mistakenly focus only on individual sentences and ignore their larger structure. When they’re done, there’s nothing ostensibly wrong with each sentence, but the structure is a mess.

2. Be responsible

Answer to yourself.

You should be able to justify every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph — especially if what you’re writing will live for a long time and be read by many. Often, you should ask yourself: Is this the word I really want to use? Do I understand its implications? You should also justify your structure: Maybe this sentence makes sense, but does it make sense in this location? Is it related to the passages near it? Will it confuse my readers?

3. Be yourself

Don’t force it.

All writers have a natural voice — whether you’re an accomplished wordsmith or not — and that voice should surface naturally when you write. If you’re trying to write differently than you normally would, you’re not being yourself — and then you leave yourself open to awkward phrases and unintentional mistakes.

For instance, I purposely vary my sentence and paragraph lengths, often following a long (but grammatically correct) sentence with a short, impactful one that often stands alone as its own paragraph. I frequently use alliteration, detailed lists and colorful anecdotes. These don’t work for everyone.

I also use lots of em dashes (these things: —) when writing. And that’s fine because that’s part of my voice, and I understand when to use them. On the flip side, I detest ellipses (these things: …) even though em dashes and ellipses are somewhat interchangeable. I’ll even occasionally use a well-placed exclamation point, though my wife — also a writer — thinks I’m crazy.

It all comes down your style. (But I’d suggest you don’t use ellipses. I think they’re lazy!)

One caution: Don’t let your voice muddle clarity. You can have both, but don’t sacrifice understanding for cleverness.

Another caution: When I say “be yourself,” I also mean that quite literally. Never steal someone else’s writing or ideas and pass them off as your own. It can constitute plagiarism or copyright infringement. Always cite your sources and link to them.


More resources

Copyscape.com allows you to input large amounts of text into a form field that then uses Yahoo and Google APIs to find matches on the internet. This allows you to check whether someone else has used your work, or if you’ve unintentionally used someone else’s words. Each search costs five cents. You can use Google or Yahoo searches to check your work. But it’s tedious. You have to put chunks in quotes to search for matches.


4. Be your audience

Don’t assume you make sense.

Remember that you’re writing what you’re writing because you think you understand it. Of course it makes complete sense to you! Shouldn’t it make sense to everyone?

That’s a mistake. Try to see your writing through someone else’s eyes and ask: Does this really make sense? If you have the luxury of a second perspective, have a peer or two read it. If they’re confused or have to ask you questions about what you mean, address those portions. They’re likely right.

5. Be pitiless

Murder your darlings.

That old aphorism — sometimes attributed to William Faulker, Eudora Welty or Oscar Wilde, but probably coined by Arthur Quiller-Couch — simply means you’ll often need to remove your favorite passages or words if you can’t justify their presence. All writers have been there. We’re in love with a phrase we’ve written, but it just doesn’t fit. When that happens, kill it. Don’t stress over shoving it in somewhere.

6. Be brief

Write it once.

Redundancy is a common mistake everyone makes. Writers often rewrite phrases, sentences and passages they’ve already written — just in different words. If they’re lucky, their readers won’t notice or care. What’s worse, their readers will become frustrated or angry because they may feel like they’re wasting their time. Even worse than that: They get bored. They’ll give up and close your site.

I have zero scientific evidence to support this, but here’s my theory: Too-verbose writers create redundant passages because they subconsciously think they didn’t explain it well the first time.

If you find redundancies in your writing, ask yourself: Where did I explain this already, and did I explain it clearly?

Tighten your writing. Then tighten some more. (Flickr photo by Eric)

Tighten your writing. Then tighten some more. (Flickr photo by Eric)

7. Be tight

Squeeze out the flotsam.

Tightening is one of the best things you can do as a writer. There are a few steps I follow when tightening. First I look for major structural redundancies: What sections are similar and can be combined? Sometimes I can eliminate an entire paragraph.

Then I look for passages and sentences that can be removed or combined with others. Ask yourself: Am I saying the same thing again? If so — or even if it’s close to the same thing — I consider removing it.

Last, I look for words I can remove without changing my meaning. This can trim your writing significantly and leave you with something fresh, clear and simple.

8. Be correct

Read what you wrote.

Then read it again.

And then read it again.

And always run a spelling, punctuation and grammar check. Microsoft Word is still the best spellchecker around, but because it’s a bit pricey, you can often find free tools like Google Docs (although it won’t check grammar) that suffice.

Check for commonly misused homonyms, too. These are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings — like “their,” “there” and “they’re,” or “it’s” and “its.”

Also, be wary of shorthand, emoticons or emojis. We’ve all seen them: LOL, b4, ttyl, ppl and the rest. Sometimes they may make sense, but be careful and consider your audience.


More resources

This list from Weber State University contains common mistakes every writer should know, including homonyms, misused words and problem phrases.

Here’s a list of common mistakes — and how to avoid them — I compiled for Treehouse writers.

Grammar Girl, aka Mignon Fogarty of QuickandDirtyTips.com, is another excellent resource for those pesky grammar and punctuation problems.


9. Be courteous

Write for your grandma.

This mostly applies to emails and other communication. Remember that written words can’t carry voice inflection, body language or any other modifying treatments. Therefore, you can’t control as easily how someone will react to what you write. What sounds cheerful to you may sound snide to your reader.

Put another way: Your audience can react negatively, even if what you mean is written with the best intentions. When you’re corresponding with a client, a boss or a coworker, be cautious and write with professionalism.

Write with courtesy, like how you'd address your grandma. (Flickr photo by Wystan)

Write with courtesy, like how you’d address your grandma. (Flickr photo by Wystan)

Try to include a salutation — “Hi Tim,” — whenever you can. Always end with a “Thanks, Tim” or “Best, Tim” or similar sign-off. These common courtesies are short and free, and they can mean a great deal to the receiver.

Also be wary of writing too much from your mobile phone or tablet. The convenience these devices provide can also be a pitfall and lead you to crafting curt and possibly discourteous replies. If you must use a mobile device, try to include a salutation and “thank-you” sign-off or at least your name. Always check your spelling, grammar and punctuation. And read it for autocorrect errors. Then read it again.

10. Be prompt

Don’t put off responses.

We’re often tempted to read emails immediately but not respond until later. If you’ve told someone you will email her by Tuesday, email her by Tuesday. The same goes for promised communications or work you’ve done.

11. Be focused

Remove distractions.

If you find yourself having a hard time concentrating on your writing or proofreading, try removing all distractions. Turn off the TV, radio, music or anything that provides auditory distractions. You may think you’re just reading, writing and looking at your work — but you’re actually hearing it. Any competition can negatively affect your work, and unless you’ve been immersed in loud working environments — like a newspaper, a stock exchange or a nitroglycerin plant — your mind’s likely to wander. (If you want to work with music, play it softly and consider songs that don’t have lyrics, such as classical or electronic music. You may love the Beatles, but Paul McCartney will fight your inner monologue.)

Turn off the TV if it's bothering you even slightly. (Flickr photo by flash.pro)

Turn off the TV if it’s bothering you even slightly. (Flickr photo by flash.pro)

If you’re still having trouble and find yourself missing easy mistakes, read aloud what you wrote and visually focus on each word as you go along. Hearing it aloud will help you spot missed or incorrect words.

You might also give it an hour or a day. Return to your writing after a break. You’ll catch mistakes if you give yourself a rest.

This guide isn’t exhaustive, of course. Learning to be a better writer takes years. The best advice I’ve learned is this: Read a lot. Write a lot. Scour the web for the type of writing you want to do. See what others are writing and how it affects you as a reader.

With consistent and practiced effort, you’ll improve.

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Tim Skillern

Tim is a writer and journalist. He's @timskillern.

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