'Good writing is like a pint of Guinness – you have to let it settle'

This copywriter delivers a masterclass in improving your writing skills.

By Denise Fay MD, Achieve Marketing

WHETHER YOU’RE WRITING an email, a press release or updating copy on your website, the words you use matter.

The way you communicate can help your company stand out from the competition. It can mean the difference between winning business or losing a future client. It really is that simple.

Good writing is something of an art form and takes a lot of practice to master – but it’s a skill that anyone can learn, and one I think every business person should take the time to improve.

Mistakes cost sales

If you ever doubt that poor writing can lead to poor sales, here’s an anecdote I tell clients on training courses.

A couple of years ago I was at a networking event and struck up a conversation with an accountant.

At the time, I was on the lookout for someone to do my books, so I was interested in his firm. We had a good chat and exchanged business cards.

When I looked at his card later on, I noticed there was a typo on the back. I never called him. Why? Everyone makes mistakes but not checking a few words on his new business card was a concern.

If he couldn’t double check his own business card, then how could I trust that he’d double check and balance the books?

It’s all about perception. An error, no matter how small, comes across as unprofessional, and it makes for a bad first impression.

Denise Fay 1 Denise Fay
Source: Denise Fay

Know your audience

The first thing every professional writer is taught is that they should ‘know their audience’. That just means you know exactly who you’re writing for and how you should communicate with them.

By knowing your audience, you’ll find it easier to decide the type of language you should use and what information needs to be included or left out of the text. The same grammar and spelling rules apply to everything you write, but the ‘tone’ will be different.

I know that my audience is mostly made up of people in professional services, so there are certain things I can and can’t do when I’m writing marketing copy or corresponding with them through email.

For example, I would avoid trying to come across as overly humorous and I certainly wouldn’t use slang. I’d use a slightly more formal way of writing.

It would be a different story if I was targeting millennials – I would write in a more chatty, relaxed tone – or if I was marketing gin or make up or a consumer brand.

You should always have your readers in mind before you touch the keyboard. It makes it much easier to plan what you want to say and how you want to say it. Put yourself in their shoes.

Structure

A lot of people struggle with structuring their writing. It’s usually caused by bad habits picked up while they were at school or college.

Many people find it hard to break up text into paragraphs. A good rule of thumb is to start a new paragraph for every new idea. It just makes your copy flow better.

When it comes to structuring sentences, you don’t want them to be too long. Otherwise, your readers will struggle to keep up with you.

I encourage my clients and students to read out loud. It might feel awkward at first, but it’s really worth it. If you’re out of breath by the time you read the full stop, you need to either shorten it or break it into two separate sentences.

The worst offender I came across was a mammoth, 50-word sentence. That’s a huge turnoff because your reader will struggle to understand the point you’re trying to make. Remember, the brain can only process so much information at a time.

shutterstock_519499720 Information overload
Source: Shutterstock/pathdoc

Just think of it this way – write the way you speak. Your copy should flow just as a conversation would. There will be times when you need to use longer sentences (like this one). Other times, short is best.

If you take the time to structure your writing so it’s easier for your reader to digest, they will return the favour by taking the time to read it.

The same goes for the words you chose. It’s best to avoid jargon wherever possible. If you’re writing about something a bit complicated, try using metaphors and similes to explain it.

You also want your writing to be clear and concise so cut out any unnecessary words. Why use three words when one will do?

Let it settle

I would always tell clients to avoid publishing something straight away, whether it’s a blog post, a column or even just an important email.

When you’ve be staring at a piece of text for a long time, there’s a chance you’ll miss some mistakes.

I always say good copy is like a pint of Guinness – it needs to settle. So take a break from writing. Go for a walk or do some other work, then come back to it 30 minutes later.

With fresh eyes, you’ll spot spelling mistakes and other errors you hadn’t seen before. You can’t rely purely on a spellcheck.

If all else fails

If you’re struggling, employ a professional copywriter. Everyone can write, they simply strengthen your strengths and weed out weaknesses in your copy.

Denise Fay is MD of Achieve Marketing and the author of 31 Days to Write Better Copy. This article was written in conversation with Conor McMahon as part of a series of masterclasses with some of Ireland’s most influential business people.

If you want to share your opinion, advice or story, email opinion@fora.ie.

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