A beginner's guide to writing

Aug 07, 2017

Welcome to your beginner’s guide to writing. Let’s start by noting that for this article, we’re not dealing with writing in any art-high or literary sense but writing as a crude tool to make professional life easier.

So, why should you bother with improving your comms writing? Good communication can improve lots of aspects of your work, but as a soft skill, it can also help with interactions at home.

The main problem that people face in their professional comms is a lack of precision. The message and the words not aligning because they haven’t thought about exactly what they’re trying to communicate, what they want, and the best way to say it.

To refine your comms to a razor edge, consider these things when writing:

Who are you talking to?

This is the first and most important consideration. Remember that time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. Who are you talking to? What do you want to say? How have they communicated with you in the past?

You can learn a lot about a person by their comms style and good comms will consider and bend to the audience above all else.

What are you saying?

Each piece of comms should have a central message. The message, your audience, and what you want from the interaction will flavour the message, from structure to tone to mode of dissemination. So, don’t confuse it by introducing multiple messages. Hold tight to what you mean to say, consider how it might be lost in translation, and then work to prevent that miscommunication.

Sentence structure

Stick to the K.I.S.S.A.D.A.U.B.A.P.O. method - keep it simple, stupid... and don’t add unnecessary bits and pieces, OK?

You know those simple-ass sentences they use to teach people English? If you’re communicating a concept with multiple stakeholders or moving parts, do that!

“John sees a dog. The dog is black. The dog poops on John’s shoe. John is upset.”

It might seem too simple but writing like this is very easily digested. It’s rhythmic and clear. The subject and object are explicit. There can be no confusion about who is doing what in each phrase, even though it sounds like a robot learning to speak. Use this technique for conveying the most important parts of messages.

Digital readability

Is your message digestible? The last thing you want is for the receiver to see a wall of text and be intimidated. We want to break it up into visually consumable sections.

That means:

  • Include subheadings
  • Make lists
  • Use italics or bold to highlight important points (but don’t overdo it - if every second word is bold or italics, the hierarchy collapses around itself)

Edit, edit, edit. Then edit again.

Most of your time spent on comms should actually be spent editing. The editing process, even for simple emails, should be iterative. Even the best communicators rarely nail it the first time, so dedicate the bulk of your time to editing/polishing.

Active voice or passive voice?

Most digital copywriting is done in active voice, with a few exceptions that stray into passive voice. First, let’s nail down a definition of both.

Active voice means the subject is doing the action.

Passive voice means the subject is being acted upon.

Here’s some examples, using Inspector Gubbins (a crime-solving dog who follows his nose and his heart) as the subject.

Active voice: Inspector Gubbins ate an old shoe.

Passive voice: The old shoe was eaten by Inspector Gubbins.

Active voice: Inspector Gubbins is investigating the case of the missing old shoe.

Passive voice: The case of the missing old shoe is being investigated by Inspector Gubbins.

Active voice: Inspector Gubbins was awarded a medal for his work on the case of the missing old shoe.

Passive voice: A medal was awarded to Inspector Gubbins for his work on the case of the missing old shoe.

Alright, enough about Inspector Gubbins.

Generally, stick to active voice as it creates less confusion about who is doing what. But passive voice is a very handy tool for client and colleague management because it’s politer. For example, it’s more positive to say “The files were not sent” rather than “You did not send the files”. In the passive version, the blame isn’t being placed on any specific subject but creates the pleasant illusion that it’s a disembodied administrative error. Use passive voice to shift the implied blame into the ether and see how pleasant your client comms become.

These are the basic questions to ask yourself before sending that email, text, or memo, and when sitting down to big meetings. A focus on strategically crafting and delivering your message will help smooth out all your comms. Next time, we'll talk grammar.