College essays have done more damage to our collective writing style than we realize.
Think about it: in college, professors required us to write a paper a certain length. We also felt compelled to use big, fancy words from a thesaurus to sound as smart as possible.
So what did we routinely turn in for a grade? Bloated 8-10 pagers full of words we barely knew and sentences that never once came out of our mouths.
Basically, we stopped being ourselves.
Fortunately, there are five things we can do right now to make us stronger, more competent and more natural writers.
1. Write Like You Are Talking to a Friend
When we sit down to write, we forget we are attempting to communicate with other people. Proper grammar and punctuation still matter, but it’s OK to be conversational. That way, your words flow effortlessly down the page, and your reader doesn’t get hung up on complicated sentences.
When you write like you talk, the reader can also ‘hear’ you speaking. Your personality shines through and that breathes life into your work.
Just ask yourself: how would I describe this story to my best friend?
Conversational is key. Know what I mean?
2. Short Paragraphs Matter
Especially online, quick paragraphs are crucial. Try not to write blocky paragraphs because the reader will lose focus.
Short sections (even those with only 1-2 sentences) make your work read faster, which ensures a person makes it all the way to end.
3. The Secret to a Great Piece of Writing: the Headline
You could have just written the best article/blog post/academic paper of your life. But with a boring headline, you’ve essentially made sure no one will read it. Here’s the trick: you need to tease the reader.
Give them a little hint about your topic but leave something to be desired. Make them feel like they need to click on your link, or it’s going to bug them all day not knowing the full story.
Two of my recent blog post headlines:
‘Best College’ Lists Leave Out the Most Important Ranking of All
Starbucks is Forever Changing the Way We Buy Coffee. Are You Ready?
If I piqued your interest, then I did my job.
4. The Power of a Strong Opening Line
Once you get a person interested with your enticing headline, the next make-or-break moment is the opening line. Again, the key is to hook the reader.
This is especially important for cover letters. If you open with, ‘Hi my name is ____, and I am interested in the position of….’ then your cover letter is going to the bottom of the stack.
Why? The opener is too predictable. Start with a line that grabs the reader’s attention. Tell a personal story and drop the reader into the middle of the action. In short: be bold with the beginning.
That doesn’t mean revert to college writing mode. Be yourself – and talk like yourself – and remember that a typical opening line will yield a typical response.
5. Respect the Reader’s Time
The final tip may be the most important. When writing – or giving a speech – it’s so easy to forget about the audience.
Someone has graciously given his/her time to listen to what you have to say. Their time is precious and must be valued. That’s why good writers use as few words as possible to make their point. They value the audience and in turn, the audience appreciates them.
You can almost always say more with less. Your points will be clearer, and the reader comes way more satisfied.
It’s a true win-win.
Danny Rubin is a media consultant based in Washington, DC. He writes ‘News To Live By‘ a blog that uses the day’s headlines to explore how we can improve personally and professionally. He tweets at @NewsToLiveBy.