Natalie Murphy – PR Manager
Comedian Steve Martin once said: “Some people have a way with words. Other people not have way.”
And it’s true that like all skills, some people are more naturally adept at writing than others. But writing isn’t a gift blessed only on Pulitzer prize-winners or best-selling authors.
Good writing is not about talent, it’s about technique and it’s something we can all improve. So, how do we do that?
As we all learn to read before we can write, the first step to better writing is to read more. By doing this, we can start to unpick the techniques of writing we like and apply them to our own work.
One thing to look out for is how a writer paces their work. Here’s a great excerpt from Gary Provost’s 100 Ways to Improve your Writing which illustrates this.
Read it aloud for the full effect:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together are monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
“Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say, listen to this, it is important.”
We can also see this technique in action in this piece of long-form advertising by Krispy Kreme.
Here’s an extract:
“At Krispy Kreme, we think the key to life, by which we mean eating doughnuts, is balance. Sure, if you eat them morning, noon and night and they are brought directly to your armchair, then that would be bad. But then if you’ve never felt the pleasure of eating a delicious fluffy original glazed doughnut hot off the line and, heaven forbid, you get struck by lightning, well surely that would be really bad. Really really bad.”
Tailor to your audience
Another thing to pay attention to when reading is how the writer has tailored their words to suit their audience.
There’s no better place to look out for this than in our daily newspapers. Each will cover broadly the same stories but there will be subtle differences used to make the stories attractive to the people they are trying to appeal to.
Make it simple
It’s also important to bear in mind that whoever your audience is, it is said that the average reading age of adults in the UK is nine-years-old.
That doesn’t mean that people cannot understand complex information or ideas. It does mean that our first job as writers is to communicate in a way that is easy to understand.
This is particularly important in public information and The Plain English Campaign does some great work in championing clarity in this area. It’s worth looking at some of their brilliant before and after examples to see how it should and shouldn’t be done.
Many times, however, we are not simply trying to communicate something clearly when we write. We are often trying to persuade the reader of something in an entertaining and engaging way.
It’s therefore no coincidence that ‘storytelling’ has become a buzzword in marketing and for tips in this area, let’s go straight to one of the best; George Orwell.
Orwell said that writers should never use a metaphor, simile, or other figures of speech which you are used to seeing in print. He is warning here, I think, against the writer’s biggest enemy – the cliché.
Clichés are clichés because they are used over and over again and as readers, we tend to skip over them because we know them so well. If we want our copy to be more engaging and memorable, we need to make our readers work a little bit harder.
Orwell did this to great effect in the first line of 1984 which reads: “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
The unexpected addition of ‘thirteen’ is surprising and unusual and immediately draws the reader in. This works in advertising too.
Carlsberg could easily have described theirs as ‘the best beer in the world’ but instead they said it ‘probably’ was, sparking a slogan that has endured for years.
I love this particularly because it actually says nothing about the product or the company specifically. It’s just a clever piece of wordplay that has worked so well that the word ‘probably’ alone is now closely associated with the brand.
This is one of the gifts of language. As writers, we might often bemoan its complexities but here lies opportunity. We can exploit words in countless creative ways in our writing and it doesn’t have to be complicated.
Steve Martin simply shifted the order of words in a sentence to raise a laugh and hopefully the next time you are sitting in front of a blank page, his joke will help you remember that you too can have a way with words.