‘I’d love to be a better business writer but don’t have the time.’ Ever hear yourself saying something like this?
We’d all like to be better writers, but… How about if you could sharpen up your writing skills in fifteen minutes a day? Sound like a plan? Here’s how to do it.
Getting started: create a writing plan
Identify three areas you want to improve. For example,
- Headline writing
Start the clock. Tick, tick, tick…
- Open up Google Reader and scan the best headlines in your RSS reader.
- Write down – by hand – the five most interesting headlines.
- Next, go to Digg.com and find the top ten headlines for the day. Write them down.
- Over to the BBC and copy (yes, copy) their headlines; look at how they reduce news headlines into less than five works.
See any patterns starting to emerge?
If you do this for a few days, something happens. You’ll get a taste for what makes a great headline.
It’s hard to describe it but after you’ve seen, written and studied so many headlines, your internal ‘headline judge’ will tell you INSTANTLY which headlines work and which need another go.
Headline writing is critical for blog posts, mobile content, proposals, and emails. Look at the headlines in your inbox.
It’s the witty, intriguing and personal ones you open, right?
Practice using the same formulas and see what happens.
What makes a great summary?
Think of an elevator pitch that really worked. If you took one word out, it wouldn’t make sense.
Good business writers know how to boil down the essence of a report, proposal, or white paper into less than twenty words.
A compelling summary is what kickstarts your business documents.
It’s what you read at start of an executive summary or any formal introduction to a business document. It sets the tone for what’s about to follow and gives the document a focal point.
Ok, here we go again. Set the timer. In five minutes:
- Read the editor’s page in a leading newspaper. Note how the main argument is distilled into about twenty words.
- Study how the writer opens the summary, usually by highlighting a statistic, sensitive issue, or an opinion that evokes a strong reaction in the reader. Extreme statements also work.
- Look at how she closes the summary and then leads you into the article. It’s a subtle transition and requires a delicate touch to get it right.
- Note the words, phrases, verbs and adjectives the writer uses.
- Study sentence length. See how they alternate long and short sentences to create tension.
Write three short summaries – don’t worry about grammar or spelling for now – and read them out loud.
How do they sound to your ear?
- Cobbled together?
Don’t worry. Put it aside until tomorrow.
But, and this is the trick, think about the summaries during the day. Let them filter down into your subconscious and give them a quick once over before you fall asleep.
Next day, sit down and write them from scratch.
This time your pen will flow much more smoothly; you’ll type much faster without any interruption.
Now, sit back and read it aloud. Doesn’t it sound much better?
Somehow the process of letting it percolate down into your mind, helps your words find a new identify.
Try this for five minutes every day for ten days – ten consecutive days – and you’ll be stunned at your own progress.
Next, the dreaded red pen.
Some business writers would argue that the ability to edit is more important than writing itself.
I’m not sure but they do have a point. If you work in business communications, you’re going to deal with lots of words written by developers, designers, testers, customers and others who don’t have formal writing skills.
The challenge is to edit their material – while racing against a deadline – and get it into shape. Not every writer can do this. Editing takes a lot of practice.
So, how do you become a better editor in five minutes?
- Open a trade magazine. Find an article you enjoy and speed read the first three paragraphs.
- Reduce the word count by half. If it was, for instance, one hundred words, bring it down to fifty (about eight lines).
- Read the eight lines and reduce these to four.
- Challenge yourself to reduce the four to three lines.
Does this really work?
Yes. Writing is like building a muscle. The more you practice, the better you get. The purpose of challenging yourself to fifteen minutes per day is that it’s focussed.
Think of it as going to the gym and pumping your writing muscles. Work out those headlines pecs, summary biceps and editing six packs.
Now, off you go – get started.
If you were to improve one part of your writing, what would it be?