It’s something many people forget because freelance writing can be a self-defeating endeavor even for those with strong academic skills. It isn’t like completing a math problem where everything has a logical place and you’re guaranteed to do fine so long as the dots are properly connected.
Writing is the brooding cousin of painting. Whereas painters use brush strokes to convey an image, writers craft visions with words. The picture is framed by words designed to influence the reader’s perception of whatever is being conveyed. Word choice and flow are important in capturing and maintaining the reader’s interest.
In the course of more than a decade as a full-time writer – mostly for U.S. metropolitan daily newspapers – I have learned from extremely talented wordsmiths who passed on practical advice.
Their tips will help fine-tune your writing for maximum clarity and effect:
• Keep it simple, stupid! This design principle dictates use of sentences that are focused and clear. Any writer is more likely to get into trouble using long sentences with complex punctuation. Clunky sentences should be divided up so they are easier to read. Writing this way helps build and maintain momentum.
• What’s in it for me? It’s an old sales adage, but it applies equally well in writing. By the third or fourth paragraph at the latest, the writer must answer this question for the reader or risk losing their attention. In general, people want to be led and the writer must be firm in explaining why the article has value. This “nut graph” spells out, in one or two sentences, why the article is important and relevant to the reader.
• Word echoes are redundant. This one can be tricky, especially for those writing Search Engine Optimized content that relies on repetitive use of keywords. But even SEO has a limit. Generally speaking, an echo is when a writer uses the same word more than once in a sentence, or even paragraph. Repetitive use of words –except for search engine optimization – is boring and distracting. Avoid doing this at all costs.
• That “that” has got to go. In many cases, use of “that” is unnecessary and should be avoided. It may seem trivial, but “that” acts in a similar fashion as “umm” – overuse detracts from the author’s message. For example: “I hope that we go to the baseball game” should instead read, “I hope we go to the baseball game.”
• Read it out loud. Even after writing, editing and conducting a spelling and grammar check, it’s still not time to hit the send button. Read it out loud. This simple act is a perfect way to catch – with fresh ears – errors that may have been missed by fatigued mind and eyes. Reading every sentence out loud also helps identify awkward word arrangements that may slow the reader and cause them to veer off-course.
J.P. Cawyer is an east coast-based professional writer. When he isn’t mulling the dictums of the written word, he enjoys playing on his Galaxy S and the iPad.