writing tips

Writing tips 1: don’t overcomplicate it

When I train people on corporate writing, either independently or with the Henshall Centre, there can be a tendency for delegates to overcomplicate things. Ideally corporate writing, and indeed journalism, needs to be as accessible as possible. The best thing to do therefore is to keep it simple.

One way of managing this is by keeping sentences relatively short. This is something I was told as a young journalist. Everything needs to be short and staccato. There is only one problem with this. The resulting paragraphs end up stilted. They look artificial because the sentences are too uniform.

I actually had trouble writing the sentence above, it was so uniform and manufactured it didn’t read naturally at all. So if the short, sharp approach is likely to be stilted, what will work instead?

Subject, verb, object

There are times when the stuff you learned at primary school will pay off, and if you’re struggling with your writing then the old structure of “subject, verb, object” is a good one to stick with. (And don’t worry about people who tell you not to end a sentence with a preposition like “with” – I’ll deal with that in another post but it’s nonsense.) So, subject: who or what is doing something in the sentence; verb: the doing word; object: the recipient of the action.

So you get “The cat sat on the mat” rather than “The mat was sat on by the cat” – it just tells the story more easily. Sometimes a verb doesn’t take an object, which is OK – “The Prime Minister resigned.” is obviously fine.

Try also to keep the subject and the object close together. “The cat, which had a ginger head but an oddly dark body and which would scratch you if you tickled it in the wrong place but probably didn’t have a vicious bone in its body, at least no more than most of them, sat on the mat” isn’t good. There’s too much going on. Not only have I lost track of the mat, but in the reader’s mind there are probably many more interesting things than mats going on by this stage.

Writing traps

The trap a lot of corporate writers fall into is that they think it has to be articulate and to look somehow “official” if it’s any good. Too often this comes out as “officious”. If you’re on the staff somewhere you’re almost certainly going to have to adhere to some sort of house style; within the confines of that, though, try to keep it as simple as possible.

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