We’ve all had them – a cryptic little note, scooting down our email system, which leaves you thinking, ‘Just what do they mean?’ Because mail is a flat medium the potential for misunderstanding is high – no voice nuances, often no chance for immediate discussion.
Or, a newsletter by email, alias an e-zine: good information, but boring and lifeless. And we all know what happens with boring newsletters – a rapid ‘Delete’. How do good e-zine writers make their writing interesting?
Some people are very good at communicating in the written form. What are the secrets that improve our readers’ understanding, rather than cloud it? (You’ll find that many of these points relate to anything written – marketing pieces, advice to parents, hard copy as well as electronic).
Let’s look at a few guidelines. (English teachers, forgive me for skipping into your territory. Not all your colleagues have your mastery of good effective writing, and in fact some of these points may be useful for the students as well.)
Simple clear language
Keep it simple. Journalists are taught to write for a reading age of age 10 or 11. Flowery language is not good writing – it’s tedious, harder to follow, and lazy on the part of the writer. In fact, concise writing is harder, and takes more time (until you become practised). Mark Twain is reported as saying ‘I’m sorry this is such a long letter: I didn’t have time for a short one’
The areas to watch are:
· The complexity of the language – use plain expressive words.
· The number of syllables in a word – this is not a test of your wisdom and
knowledge. Use simple words.
· The number of words in a sentence – less is usually best, but vary them.
· The number of sentences in a paragraph – keep the eye engaged, and
you’ll keep the mind engaged.
· The language – is it active or passive; engaging or boring; plain or over-
fancy; precise or space- and time-wasting?
Try these sentences for size. The first two are from Managerial Communication, a textbook one of my sons had to digest at university. Sooner him than me!
“A supervisor’s receptiveness or willingness to listen to subordinates’ ideas, problems, and concerns will improve the motivation of subordinates. Through such receptiveness, supervisors develop knowledge of areas in which they need to provide additional training or explanation in order to build expectancy that the worker can perform tasks.”
Why couldn’t they just say something like?:
“A good supervisor listens to, and acts on, the ideas, questions and concerns of their team. Benefits? Higher motivation from the workers, because they’re listened to and helped where needed; and bosses who know what’s really going on.”
Once you get into the habit, it’s quite easy to pick too-fancy language and long boring sentences. However, if you’d like help and there’s no one around to guide you, you’ve got it right there in your computer. You’ll need to use your word processing system: this feature isn’t in most email programmes. On the toolbar, select: Tools, Spelling and Grammar, choose Options, and check ‘Show Readability Statistics’. When you’ve finished writing your piece, run the spelling and grammar check. (It’s sometimes a bit of a nuisance – just ‘Ignore’ all the things you don’t want to change). At the end you get the readability rating. To find out more about this rating, choose ‘Readability’ in the Help menu.
The more you waffle, the harder it is for your reader to get your meaning. Say what you want to say, and then skip back and take out all the surplus words.
‘As she was going into the staff room yesterday, Susie decided to stop off at the office and collect the consent forms the principal had told her about, for the next school trip.’
‘Susie picked up the school trip consent forms yesterday.’
Short punchy words and sentences engage the reader.
Write as you speak
Even if you’re just writing quick work-related emails to associates, have fun making them easy and enjoyable to read. It doesn’t take very much more time, and helps to compensate for the fact that you’re not there.
Be personal and friendly, even in longer pieces – electronic or hard copy. Not only is it good writing, enjoyable to read, and therefore an effective use of time for your readers. It can create all manner of unexpected opportunities. For me, it became an unexpected marketing tool.
Earlier on in my career, with a two-year old training and speaking business specialising in time management, the then editor ofEducation Today asked me to submit an article. (He’d spotted a contribution of mine in another journal). When I looked at my chatty little piece tucked in with the scholarly gems of the other writers, most of them academics, I felt a bit intimidated. To my surprise, he came back and asked for more.
‘But my writing isn’t like everyone else’s,’ I said.
‘That’s why I want more of you,’ was his reply.
The benefit to this easy reading style is – your potential audience will read you before they read the scholarly articles. Everyone’s busy: the easy read gets the eye.
The value of e-zines
I know this is really marketing stuff, but it’s such a productive tool, I can’t resist telling you about it. Many schools these days seek more students, and have to compete with other providers. Do you have, or can you get, the email addresses of the prospective parents? What short useful snippets on education can you send, that will position you as the preferred supplier of your product or service?
Although paper-based newsletters are very good, and some will have a longer shelf-life, e-zines are much cheaper to do. If your information is useful, rather than just self-promotion, your readers will pass on your pearls of wisdom – alias viral marketing.
We started a free e-zine around the early 2000’s. The first mail-out went to all the people in our database with email addresses – about 654 people. That number has since grown rapidly, and now many folk from all over the world are subscribers, and new enrolments pour down the line every day, and after every speech or workshop I give. The reason they want to join? Simple, easy information, quickly digested and useful.
This isn’t so relevant for a quick email note, but tell stories in a newsletter article, e-zine or marketing piece – they’re alive, they’re real, and you feel as though you’re there. Your readers will connect a thousand times more than if you give them bland boring facts and data, even when written well. Think back to the last really good speaker you heard – I bet they wove stories and anecdotes into their presentation.
Do a spell and grammar check
There is nothing more frustrating to a literate person than poorly spelt and ungrammatical emails, especially when the writer is using their primary language. (We’re all more forgiving of second language users). Turn on your spell check, so you at least have the choice of making a bad impression. Tools, Options, Spelling, choose ‘Always check spelling before sending’, and ‘Suggest replacements for misspelled words’.
Print off to check
Even the most experienced writers will print off something important before they send it. Your eye will see different things on a hard copy – although we can compose on a screen, it’s very dangerous to proof-read there. For instance, I’ve just spent the last two hours writing this article, gone through it several times to check the layout, spelling and sense of the material, and yet, once I printed it off, several glaringly obvious improvements hit me in the face.
The other really useful thing, where possible, is to write, proof-read, leave for an hour or so, and then re-proof your document. You’ll almost always see improvements.
Have fun with your writing. Good communication = speedy comprehension = time saved = better results.