ROI Senior Writer Rory Macleod shares his perspective on taking your writing to the next level.
When ROI first asked me to put together my rules of writing, I thought, finally. As a writer working in the corporate space for the past 15 years, I’ve seen the way many companies write, and I can tell you, a lot of it is pretty meh. While there are some fairly common reasons for this — the biggest being, we often don’t have expert wordsmiths do the writing for us — the important thing to know is, it it doesn’t have to be this way. So even if you can’t afford to keep a professional writer on staff or … um [clears throat] … hire an award-winning consulting firm, there is still a lot you can do to make your own content better.
You just have to follow these seven basic rules of writing that every communication professional should know.
1st rule of writing: Write what you’re interested in.
We all know what it’s like to be on a date with someone boring. They don’t ask questions. They don’t reveal anything about themselves. They mostly sit there with their glass of rosé and say as little as possible.
For the most part, corporate writing tends to be a lot like that. It’s dry, it’s humorless, it’s unimaginative, and it doesn’t leave us feeling all warm and tingly inside.
I’m here to tell you: it doesn’t have to be that way. Just because you’re writing for a company doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun. Believe me. You’d be amazed at how easily a topic like business conduct training can be made into something clever and thought-provoking. You just have to let your creativity loose.
The key is to be curious. Find an angle that’s interesting to you, then write about it. And write it in a way that you’d want to read. So if that means writing an oral history, then write an oral history. And if it’s writing a day-in-the-life human interest story, then write a day-in-the-life human interest story. Whatever it is, you can be confident that if you’re engaged in the content, your readers will be engaged in it, too.
2nd rule of writing: Remember who you’re writing for.
The biggest mistake companies make is believing that just because they have something to communicate, their audience is going to care. I hate to break this to you, but that’s not how it works.
Employees are incredibly busy people. They’ve got a thousand emails to respond to, and if they’re going to spend five minutes doing anything, it’ll be to scroll through Instagram, not read your 500-word post on next month’s performance reviews.
So if you’re going to ask them to spend their precious free time reading something, make sure it’s what they actually want, not what your so-called “stakeholders” want. They aren’t your readers. Your readers are your readers. They’re the only ones whose attention you need to grab. So write something that’s going to be of interest to them.
I promise, you’ll have much more success if you focus less on word count and algorithms and just create good, quality content that people will be eager to consume.
Make good content, and people will read. It really is that simple.
3rd rule of writing: Write like a human.
There are 171,476 words in the English language. (It’s true; I looked it up.) So why do we insist on using the same ones over and over again when there are so many other, better, more natural-sounding words we could use? (I’m looking at you, strategic and repurpose, and also you, low-hanging fruit.)
Look, I get it. Jargon is something we all say. It’s quick. It’s efficient. It requires little effort. But while I know it’s tempting to use jargon (or acronyms or any technical terminology for that matter), seriously, don’t do it. It’s the equivalent of wearing sweatpants to a cocktail party. Sure it’s comfortable, but you may as well be telling the world you can’t be bothered.
The good news is that in every instance, there is always a better phrase or option available — one that doesn’t require a dictionary or sound like something a robot would say.
So take an extra moment and find words that actual humans would use. How? It’s easy. Ask yourself: “If I were to say this sentence out loud to someone at a dinner party, would they look at me like I’m a weirdo?” If the answer is yes, then you need to immediately change that sentence into something that won’t elicit an eye roll.
Remember: Robot writing, bad. Human writing, good.
4th rule of writing: Don’t be fancy; just say what you mean.
The only thing worse than writing that’s filled with mindless corporate-speak is writing that’s stuffy and vague. Vague writing is a waste of space. It takes up valuable words and shows a lack of confidence in the material. While stuffy writing, on the other hand, is pretentious and annoying. Only the most gifted writers can ever pull it off, and even then, most know better than to try. So unless you’re actually Cormac McCarthy, don’t get fancy. Just use your own natural voice.
Trust me. There is no quicker way to lose a reader than to fill a paragraph with a bunch of empty words that say nothing meaningful. You might think you’re impressing your readers, but I guarantee you, they will lose their patience.
Be specific, say what you mean, and get to the point without wasting anyone’s time. I promise, you’ll come off sounding more like an authority and your readers will actually stick with you to the end.
5th rule of writing: Use examples.
People learn in different ways. Some are visual learners. Others learn best through copying and repetition. But almost everyone can learn through examples.
Examples are one of the best ways to add specificity to your writing while also adding a dose of personality. You can do this in a literal way (by saying “for example,” for example) or in a metaphorical way (as in literally giving a metaphor). Remember earlier when I compared corporate writing to a boring date? Guess what? That was a metaphor.
Examples are a really easy way to help your readers grasp a point you’re trying to make. They also slow the pace down by breaking up the flow. You wouldn’t want to read something that constantly moved from one idea to the next without ever pausing to delve deep; that would get old very fast. Examples, then, help provide a little diversity to your prose. Think of them like mini espresso breaks in the afternoon — just something to perk your readers up and keep their attention. (See what I did there? Another metaphor!)
6th rule of writing: Revise until you can justify every word.
The key to good writing isn’t writing. It’s revision. It’s taking the thousand words you wrote in your first draft and whittling them down to the most concise, most compelling prose.
That doesn’t necessarily mean making the draft shorter, by the way. Sometimes (as in the case with this piece) your drafts may actually get longer. The point isn’t to make fewer words; it’s to make each word count.
How? The same way my woodworking friend Dido does it. A lot of times, Dido has no idea what he’s creating until he’s halfway through a piece of wood. He just keeps carving and carving until eventually a form starts to emerge. Maybe it’s a rose or a dove or a heart-shaped locket; it’s different every time. But the key is he just keeps working at it until the art presents itself. And then when it does reveal itself, he doesn’t stop there. He keeps carving and polishing until there isn’t a speck of excess wood left.
Writing requires the same discipline. You might start off knowing what want you to say, but you’ll need multiple drafts to figure out how to say it. That means you’ll need to cut and rewrite and kill all your darlings and then sleep on it and do it all again with fresh eyes the next day.
It’s a process you can’t rush. It takes time and persistence. You have to be patient.
Okay, so then how do you know when you’re done? That’s easy. You’ll know the same way Dido knows: when you can look at what you’ve created and justify the existence of everything that’s there. If there’s even one word you’re not sure about, then you still have work to do.
If that sounds like a lot of work, I assure you, it is. But that’s the process. That’s how all writing becomes good and even great. I wish there was a shortcut, but there isn’t.
7th rule of writing: Don’t quit.
I’m not going to lie you. Writing is hard. Really hard. Except for maybe a lucky few who are blessed with some divine talent, it’s a slog to get through most assignments.
Still, it’s one of the most important tools we have to get information across, and when it’s done well, it can bring people together to accomplish amazing things. So even though it may feel like a mental root canal a lot of the time, don’t quit. Keep at it. Keep refining those paragraphs and thinking of clever headlines and rooting out jargon and vague, meaningless words. You may not be writing for an audience of a million or see your work published on some bestseller list, but you’re still making an impact in people’s lives. You’re influencing how others act and think. And that can be very rewarding.
You owe it to your readers to give them your best work. You owe it to your material. And you owe it to yourself. So keep going, don’t quit. You’ll be glad you stuck with it when you’re done.
So there you have them. My seven rules of writing that every communication professional should know. Easy stuff, right? Good.
Now stop reading, and go out there and write. Your audience is waiting for you.
When his meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook finally started — long past the time it was scheduled to end — Rory Macleod abandoned his formal presentation and summed up a year’s work in five minutes.