8 writing tips for non-writers: A guide to becoming a better writer

8 writing tips for non-writers

You probably don’t think of yourself as a writer, but even engineers and software developers write. Writing is an essential business skill. Even if copywriting or content creation isn’t part of your job description, you send email and text messages and might be asked to create a presentation, respond to an RFP, draft a memo, or write a report.

Make your writing as clear, compelling, and persuasive as it can be with these simple tips.

1. Write like you talk.

For some people, the idea of writing causes anxiety. As soon as we put pen to paper (or keystrokes to a Google doc), we seize up and come across sounding stiff and formal.

Relax. If you don’t like to write—or don’t think you can write—talk it through. Let’s say you need to draft a case study for a big project you just finished. It’s hard to know where to start. Here’s a secret: Writers rarely start at the beginning. The intro is often the hardest part, so start with something easier. Forget that you’re writing a case study and ask yourself, how would you explain the project to a coworker? Better yet, how would you explain it to some friends at happy hour? Tell a story in your own voice.

2. Use simple, direct language.

Despite what some may think, long, complex sentences don’t make you sound smarter. They can be hard to read and even harder to understand. The short, declarative sentence is the staple of good writing.

To make your writing easier to read:

  • Break long sentences apart.
  • Omit needless words.
  • Add clear, effective subheads for readers who prefer to scan.
  • Use bullet points for lists.
  • Replace generic terms with specific, concrete language.

On a related note, don’t reach for complicated words in an effort to sound smart. For example, utilize is not a synonym for use. These words have distinct meanings. To use is to employ an object for its intended purpose. To utilize is to make use of an object for something other than its intended purpose: Gretchen utilized a dime to tighten a loose screw on her desk lamp.

3. Use the active voice.

Business communications tend to lapse into the passive voice. For example: “Most doctors used by our employees are in the network.” As William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White point out in their classic writing guide, The Elements of Style, the active voice is usually more direct, concise, and bold than the passive voice. Rewriting the above sentence using the active voice is simple: “Most doctors our employees use are in the network.”

There may be times when the passive voice makes sense for a particular sentence, but the active voice will give your writing more force. Rather than writing this: “The winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award will be chosen by the Special Awards Jury.” Write this: “The Special Awards Jury will choose the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award.”

Tip: Want to be a better writer? Get a copy of The Elements of Style.

4. Avoid this common mistake.

If you’ve ever confused its and it’s, you’re not alone. Just remember that it’s always means it is or it has.

It’s confusing (it is confusing) because as kids we learn to form possessives by adding an apostrophe plus an “s” to a noun: Sarah’s apartment, Minnesota’s best campgrounds. However, we also use an apostrophe to indicate that a letter is missing. For example, in the word don’t—which is short for do not—the apostrophe stands in for the missing “o.”

Ready for a quick quiz? Which one of these is right?

  1. Don’t take the logo apart or rearrange it’s elements.
  2. Don’t take the logo apart or rearrange its elements.

(Keep reading for the answer.)

5. Ditch the jargon and overused phrases.

At the end of the day, business communications are often littered with jargon-filled lingo and overused phrases, but that’s par for the course. It is what it is, and if you aren’t careful, it could come back to bite you. Of course, you already have a lot on your plate, and the last thing we want you to do is reinvent the wheel, but if you have the bandwidth, why not think outside the box and move the needle—heck, move the goalposts, too—and while you’re at it, pluck some low-hanging fruit so you can get your ducks in a row and hit the ground running.

Enough. Some people probably use jargon-y phrases in their writing because they think it sounds impressive. Or maybe it’s an effort to cover up a lack of knowledge. Either way, it’s lazy writing—not to mention annoying. If you want your communications to shine, ditch the jargon and write like the one-of-a-kind human being you are.

Banish these familiar phrases from your writing:

  • Game changer
  • Low-hanging fruit
  • Put it on the back burner
  • Move the goalposts
  • Get your ducks in a row
  • Hit the ground running
  • It could come back to bite you
  • Par for the course
  • Leverage
  • Think outside the box
  • It is what it is
  • Take this offline
  • Get the ball rolling
  • Let’s touch base
  • Reinvent the wheel
  • A lot on your plate
  • Move the needle
  • On the same page
  • Lots of moving parts
  • It’s on my radar
  • Do you have the bandwidth?
  • At the end of the day

6. Go easy on the exclamation points.

There was a time when writers used exclamation points only to express excitement, surprise, astonishment, anger, or strong emotion—or to indicate that someone was yelling. A famous writer used to tell his students that they had just four exclamation points to use each year, so use them wisely.

These days, exclamation points are everywhere, particularly in email and text messages. Ending an email with “Thanks!” can be a sign of sincerity, but it’s best not to go overboard on exclamation points (unless you’re writing about Crazy Fun Town Bumper Car Emporium, in which case you can use as many slammers as you want).

Ending every sentence with an exclamation point is redundant and can look unprofessional:

Thanks for meeting with me this morning! I really enjoyed our discussion and appreciated the time you took to tell me more about your organization! Hopefully, we can work together in the near future! If you have any questions, give me a call! Thanks!

In business communication, it’s more effective to convey enthusiasm through word choice, phrasing, and style.

7. Read it aloud.

Before you save, send, or print what you’ve written, read it aloud to yourself. It’s a good way to find typos, missing words, awkward phrases, and other errors spell-check missed. If you trip up on a word or phrase, chances are readers will, too. The ear is a great editor.

8. Learn from your mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes. From time to time, even professional writers confuse affect and effect or use further when they mean farther. Just when you think you’ve finally mastered the difference between lay and lie, you second-guess yourself and have to look it up. It’s all part of the process of becoming a better writer.

(If you answered “b” to the question above, go ahead and pat yourself on the back.)

CRC Marketing Solutions is a Minneapolis, Minnesota, digital agency that creates and executes ideas for building business.