Need to polish your writing skills? Here are top tips from BJT editor Jeff Burger to help you successfully convey your message and reach your audience.
1. Arouse interest with the lead. It’s not just another sentence or paragraph—it’s where many people bail out. Ask yourself, “Does this make me want to read more?”
2. Delete unnecessary words. Your statements will usually sound stronger if you avoid adverbs like “very,” “extremely,” and “highly.” And keep an eye out for words that add nothing, such as the ones I’ve italicized in the following sentence: “The company, which is located in Chicago, is introducing the new product in five different colors.”
3. Serve up small portions. Once you’ve deleted as much as possible, break up what’s left. Keeping sentences and paragraphs short will help you to hold readers’ attention.
4. Avoid passive constructions. Instead of ”a program was announced,” write, “XYZ Corporation announced a program.” That way, readers will know who’s doing the announcing and you’ll replace a weak verb with a stronger one.
5. Vary your language. The dictionary offers many synonyms, which means you rarely have an excuse for reusing a word in consecutive sentences. Your writing will sound better if you avoid doing that.
6. Use words correctly. “Uninterested” and “disinterested” aren’t interchangeable, nor are “farther” and further.” To find out why, and learn much more about correct usage, read a book such as Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer.
7. Organize tightly. Don’t make the same point in three places or scatter several arguments for one position throughout your piece. And be sure you have transitions between consecutive sentences and paragraphs.
8. Don’t bury the meat. With rare exception, long attributions belong after a quote, not before. You’ll risk putting your readers to sleep if you begin a sentence with, “According to John Jones, the executive vice president for marketing at XYZ Corporation in Tucson, Arizona…”
9. Use numbers wisely. Bombard readers with more statistical data than necessary and they might not grasp or remember any of it. Does your audience really need to know that a door’s height is 6.334 feet or would it be sufficient to say “6.3 feet”—or even “about six feet”? Also, if you’re presenting lots of numbers, consider whether they might be easier to understand in a table than in a paragraph.
10. Use quotes sparingly. You can improve many spoken comments by paraphrasing, so reserve direct quotes mostly for times when it’s important to capture the speaker’s personality or exact language.
11. Pay attention to sentence structure. I often see lines like this: “As a valued customer of XYZ Corporation, our staff wants to invite you to try our latest product.” That sentence says that XYZ’s staff is the company’s valued customer—clearly not what the writer intends. Instead, begin the sentence with, “Because you’re a valued customer of XYZ Corporation…”
12. Check your facts. Nothing hurts your credibility more than getting your information wrong, so check the accuracy of every date, dollar figure, and factual statement, and the spelling of every proper noun. Mistakes happen, but not as often if you make fact-checking part of your routine.
Jeff Burger, the editor of Business Jet Traveler, has been a magazine editor since 1980. His articles have appeared in Barron’s, Family Circle, Reader’s Digest, the Los Angeles Times, GQ, and more than 75 other periodicals. Chicago Review Press will publish his latest book, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, in November.