What can you learn about writing from George Orwell and Frank Luntz?
The short answer is a lot. The long answer is below.
I have a piece of paper on my desk (well it is currently buried under a few articles I am writing and a list of things to do) that I constantly reference anytime I am starting an article or editing an article, or even when I am writing these posts here.
It is language lessons from two books and an essay that I read a few years ago, Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, Words that Work by Dr. Frank Luntz, and the essay Politics and the English Language by George Orwell.
Here are ten language lessons from these great authors and one tip that changed my writing forever. They apply to all types of writing: blog posts, newsletters, sales copy, emails (click here for more on how not to suck at email), even love notes!
- Don’t Bury the Lead. The lead is the most important, simply stated point of the article or page. Make it the first thing your readers see. Don’t make the mistake of “building up to it.” Give them the best part first and then give them a reason to keep on reading. A question is often a great way to start (see the beginning of this post for example). This is rule #1 for a reason” it’s the most important. In the military, they call it BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front).
- The first paragraph is one sentence only. See #7 for more on this.
- Don’t use tired language, clichés, or common figures of speech. In other words, be original.
- When at all possible, tell a story. This post breaks the mold for most of my posts. Most of my posts deal with a personal experience (a story) of how I messed up and learned from it. Engage the reader with a story, from your own life or from someone else’s.
- Paint a vivid picture. Your words should spark creative thoughts in the minds of your readers. Give them details and vivid portraits of what you are trying to say.
- Use small and simple words. Don’t make people look for a dictionary.
- Make your sentences and paragraphs short. Limit paragraphs to one train of thought and follow rule #8.
- If you can eliminate a word, do it. This is especially important when editing down. I usually find at least 30 words in a 500-word article that I can do without. Example: “As I was thinking about what to write here, it occurred to me that I had nothing to write.” A better wording might be, “I was thinking about what to write here and I realized I had nothing to write.” It’s a subtle change, but it is both more active and three words shorter. Other examples “I often find myself considering…” becomes “I often consider.” “Due to the increased cost of attending college, I decided to skip my final year” becomes “As college costs rose, I decided to skip my final year.” Last example: My original wording for the second sentence in rule #6 was “Don’t make people have to look for a dictionary.” I changed it to “Don’t make people look for a dictionary.” I took out two unnecessary words. It’s slightly more powerful, easier to read, and shorter.
- Don’t use jargon. This is particularly relevant to internet marketers who often use “techie” language.
- Use no more than two commas per sentence if possible.
A few years ago, I learned about something that changed my writing forever.
I learned how to check the readability statistics in Microsoft Word for everything I wrote. I could now check for passive sentences, reading ease, and grade level. I try to not use passive sentences and keep the grade level at or below 7th grade (scary, but effective).
The image on the right shows you what this looks like. Setting it up in Word is easy. In Word 2010, go to:
File >> Options >> Proofing >> Check “Show readability statistics” about 2/3 of the way down.
This will not find the passive sentences for you, but it will show you how many you have. Try for two or less per 500 words.
To get your grade level down and reading ease up, follow the rules above. Take long sentences and make them short. Take four syllable words and make them two. Take paragraphs with five or more sentences and divided them into two paragraphs.
You will be well on your way to better writing!
And in case you were wondering, this post has a grade level of 5.8, a 76.0 reading ease, and has one passive sentence. Can you find it? (no really, can you, because I can’t)
Which of these tips will most improve your writing?