by editor FinAndMarketing
The essence of good writing is getting your message across, but the essence of great writing is ensuring your document will be read. That means keeping your audience engaged- you might be surprised to know that even very technical, research-based writing should engage its readers with a persuasive argument.
Why? Keeping your audience’s attention is the first step toward writing well and really excellent writing sends a message, makes a statement, and in essence, serves to persuade its audience. Whether to persuade the reader as to the validity of the research, to persuade potential investors, encourage consumers to buy or even to persuade your university professor toward assigning your work a high mark; nearly all writing exists fundamentally to persuade its audience.
So now that we have decided to ensure our writing is read and serves to persuade our audience, how we make sure it hits the mark? Start with a strong, carefully worded first sentence. This can be difficult to do when you first put pen to paper, so I always suggest writers write the first sentence after they have completed the first draft.
In the first draft, remember, you’re not writing your engaging first sentence just yet, so just get the message across first. Write first without regard to engaging your audience or persuading anyone, just get your story straight. Make sure your paragraphs lead into each other, add transition sentences to each paragraph; in short, ensure your message is clear and coherent in the first draft. Use the second draft to make sure you engage your reader enough to persuade him/her.
Now that you’re ready for your engaging first sentence, consider your reader’s motive before you write it. Why might he/she want to read your work? What will she/he learn from it? Now write your first sentence with those types of questions in mind.
Writing courses often teach students to write several potential first line sentences, then re-read and re-write them until you’re sure you’ve hooked the reader to want to read more. Try writing several off the top of your head and you might be surprised what you come up with.
Now that the details are in place and you’ve written your engaging first sentence to begin your persuasive message, look at the work overall to consider the reader’s vantage point. He/she doesn’t want to read long sentences or those that are awkward or have several potential meanings. She/he wants to be able to follow the “story” without getting lost in the language. Work toward ensuring your writing “says what you mean.”
As an editor, I see time and time again original, well-written work in which the writer has not clearly stated his/her meaning. As the reader, I can discern what he/she might mean (or probably means) by the sentence, but its language is awkward and unclear. My editing suggestion is always, “if you mean XYZ, just state that, otherwise, your intended meaning is vague.”
Here’s an example:
An empirical investigation of the factors affecting implementation success of initiatives will be led by a team of experts in this study.
In this study, a team of experts will lead an empirical investigation of the factors affecting successful implementation of initiatives.
Vague writing quickly loses its audience. Often passive voice is the culprit vague writing and lost meaning. Consistent use of active voice, or language that clearly defines the actor and his/her action, ensures clarity and lays the foundation for excellent writing. Look for passive voice or other indicators of vague writing, like long sentences and large paragraphs, throughout your work.
Check your document carefully for redundancies and unclear language; either refine your statements or remove them. One simple tip that can dramatically improve your clarity is to read your work aloud. Chances are if you have to take a breath before finishing a sentence, it’s too long. If you have trouble reading it aloud, your reader will have trouble understanding it, even if it’s perfectly clear in your mind. It may sound time consuming, and it is, but like in football or debate, what separates winners from losers is almost always winners’ willingness to do what losers won’t.
Other audience killers are clichés. If you’ve heard it before to make a statement about something you are writing about, don’t use it in your written work. You can do better. If you mean, “There’s always light at the end of the tunnel,” get creative and use something else. How about, “In life, we know that there will always be new opportunities, but it can be hard to remember amidst crisis.”
Now that your first draft is done, you should be able to see a coherent, persuasive argument beginning to form. Define your argument for yourself and then re-read your document to work to ensure that it supports your defined argument. Of course, always have someone read your work to ensure your sentences are clear and persuasive.
Finally, use your editor wisely and remind them to check your document carefully to ensure read-ability, clarity and persuasion. Your editor knows whether or not your work is boring, unclear or lacks focus and is likely to lose your audience quickly. Ask him/her to tell you where you’ve done so. But likely, you’ve finished reading this article and followed the steps to keep your audience engaged and then to persuade your readers; you’ve made your work better, more persuasive and more readable and you’ve just made your editor’s job easier. That’s great writing.
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