As a writer – with several decades of experience writing everything from album sleeves to holiday brochures, books to TV screenplays – I must have penned more words than William Shakespeare.
Although admittedly not as naturally gifted as the great bard, I have rattled out a few rather pleasing turns of phrase.
And I have also seen every mistake under the sun and made a good few of them myself.
In this five-point guide, I will share some of my most closely guarded tips to writing compelling copy.
Whether you want to sell products, get a story into a magazine or newspaper or just write a really nice Mother’s Day card before the weekend, this guide will help you steer clear of these pervasive errors.
You shouldn’t treat this list as gospel truth. It’s easy to make mistakes, and sometimes going against these rules can work. In fact, I have broken rule #2 twice in this intro.
- Avoid clichés. Like the plague. Does every mistake really have to reside ‘under the sun’? What does that even mean? Test yourself and try to arrive at a more unique way of illustrating something. Sometimes attaching quite abstract conceits to your point can render your prose more engaging.
- Conjunctions. You shouldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction; a word that links the sentence to the preceding sentence. Can you spot the mistakes in the introduction? ‘Although admittedly’ is one; ‘And I have’ is the other. This is a pretty loose rule. Starting a sentence with a conjunction can be stylistically effective, especially in fiction writing.
- Write in an ‘active’, rather than ‘passive’ voice, the latter sounding rather drab, dull and deadened in terms of the bounce of the writing. What do I mean? Well, a passive sentence would read: ‘A new album was released by Coldplay on Thursday’. It bumps along with a der-der-der-der-duh metre as bland as… as bland as… well, as bland as a Coldplay album, in fact. Compare that to ‘Coldplay released a new album on Thursday’. By simply re-arranging the order of the words, and placing the subject first, it adds more energy to the sentence. (Notwithstanding the fact that whether written in an active or passive register, no one actually wants to see the release of another Coldplay album). In shorthand, if you are using lots of words like ‘were’ and ‘was’, your writing might well be passive.
- Alliteration. Did you spot it again? I dropped an example in point 3. While it might feel useful to rely on devices such as alliteration (the rhyming of the beginning of words), overuse can cause a jarring effect, for instance ‘drab, dull and deadened’. Do not abandon, completely, but use cautiously.
- Write casually. If you are unused to writing, the best first step is simply to write like you talk, using your own voice and committing that ‘casual register’ to print. A lot of rookie writers like to use long, complicated words to show off how smart they are. But all this does is make life harder for the reader. Orwell, who trained as a journalist before writing novels, taught to never use a long word when a short one would do.
The best advice is therefore to write like you talk, avoid clichés are overt grammatical tricks and keep to an active register. Print your writing out and read it aloud to see if it reads naturally, and that the grammar is all in the right place. Just like this. Isn’t.