English was my worst subject at school and yet I have spent 25 years writing business articles for a living. Whether you’re writing a blog on your LinkedIn page or an article for a magazine, I think almost anyone can learn to write in a way that engages the reader. It’s not about becoming a literary genius; it’s about understanding how your writing comes across. It’s a skill you can learn like any other.
I always start by asking myself: ‘What am I trying to say’? If you aren’t clear about the message, then this will likely be apparent. Every personal viewpoint piece needs at least one story at its heart.
People have short attention spans, especially when reading online, and you have to hook them in
Everyone has their own style, but I spend a long time thinking about this before I start to write anything. When I have this clear in my mind, I can then start to plan the article. I think about the points I want to make, the way I want it to flow and, crucially, how I want it to start.
The first sentence is really important. It should draw readers in, make them curious and want to read the first paragraph. The first paragraph then sets the scene; it should tell readers what the piece is going to be about and make them want to read on.
A good anecdote makes the reader feel that you are trying to talk directly to them
I think writers often underestimate the impact of the opening lines. People have short attention spans, especially when reading online, and you have to hook them in.
Find your flow
I am a big believer in flow. A good viewpoint piece has a natural flow, taking readers through the arguments in a logical manner. There’s no right or wrong way to do this but the important thing is that it should follow a natural course. You are trying to explain why you have this opinion so you also need to cover why other people might be mistaken.
I don’t think I have ever seen a sentence and thought ‘I wish that was longer’
If you have scar tissue from your personal experience, or you’ve seen something interesting and under-reported, then do include it. It adds colour and makes what you are saying more personal. A good anecdote can also be entertaining in its own right; it makes the reader feel that you are trying to talk directly to them.
I always try and keep my sentences short. A long, rambling sentence will risk losing the reader and may even annoy people who appreciate good writing. I don’t think I have ever seen a sentence and thought ‘I wish that was longer’.
Long paragraphs are visually off-putting and imply sloppy thinking
Every sentence should also have something to say. I used to edit other analysts’ work and I could usually cut out about a third of the words and double the number of sentences. The end result was shorter and better. Writing this way is a bit harder but it’s much easier to read.
The same principle applies to paragraphs. Keep them short and focused. Long paragraphs are visually off-putting and, to me at least, imply sloppy thinking. If you structure your paragraphs well, you will almost certainly have got the flow right.
A famous tennis commentator once told me: ‘I always imagine I am talking to my friends’, which I think is fantastic advice. This maxim applies equally to business writing. Good conversation tends to consist of short, punchy sentences and phrases.
Find a style
My last suggestion is to emulate someone else’s style. If you stop and think about it, there is probably someone whose writing you especially enjoy. Go back and re-read their work, and ask yourself: ‘Why do I like this so much’? It’s likely to be not just entertaining but very well written.
Good communication has never been more important. We all have access to unlimited amounts of information. If you want to be heard, make your work easy to read.
For courses to improve your writing skills, visit ACCA’s resource finder