Five Keys to Effective Written Communication
My History as a Writer
For the majority of the past two decades, I've made my living through creative work and website design. As a one-stop-creative-shop of sorts, I also found myself crafting a great deal of copy for customers. Many clients would ask me to create logos, shoot photos, design brochures and develop content for the websites I was building for them. Eventually, I added in word-smithing and content generation as paid services offered to local businesses.
During these years, I also looked for additional revenue streams, based around the core business I had established. Blogging became a legitimate way to make money, provided a blogger could attract enough readers, and then sell advertising space on their blog. In later years, bloggers made money by linking to affiliate links on Amazon, and obtaining a referral fee if the viewer purchased anything during their visit. Additionally, businesses popped up online that accepted articles from freelance writers, on nearly any topic, and would pay the writers according to the level of engagement of their readers. These sites were also using advertising and affiliate linking to make money on the articles submitted by freelance writers.
And so, I wrote. I wrote a lot. I wrote web copy for hundreds of websites over the years, for every kind of product, service and organization imaginable. I created content for sheepdog herder training schools, gas-saving automotive attachments, real estate agents, and everything in between. In addition to writing original content, I also spent a great deal of time helping clients edit their existing content. Sometimes they had too much content. Sometimes it was organized poorly and needed better structure. Other times the content was lifeless and needed new language or a fresh personality. And sometimes, the content simply didn’t describe the product the company sold, or the services they provided.
At various times throughout these years, I launched and authored different blogs in an attempt to build readership, and in turn, make additional income. I wrote blogs about Apple products, time management tips, and even dabbled in online life coaching. I wrote reviews for products I used, and linked to my Amazon affiliate account, in hopes that readers would appreciate my thoughts, and purchase the products I used. One of my longest running blogs was a daily journal that outlined my effort to lose 50 pounds, complete with my daily food and exercise diary. Before I sold my business in 2011, I had a staff of 5 other writers who were all contributing to blogs I established, for business purposes.
Although each of these different areas of communication added some income to the bottom line of the business, none could stand alone as revenue-producing endeavor. However, any skill that is practiced regularly is typically improved, and my season of writing many words definitely led to more effective written communication.
Evaluating What I Knew About Effective Writing
During these years, I had no intention of improving my written communication through these efforts. I quite simply was trying to generate revenue. I have loved telling stories for as long as I can remember, and even had visions of becoming a novelist when I was still in high school. I wrote for the high school newspaper, and nearly attempted a journalism degree, before changing to music school at the last minute. Because of my love for the written word, I figured it might be a decent way to earn additional income.
Writing content for business websites initially made me nervous. I had no problem presenting myself as an expert when it came to graphic design and website development, but writing for profit was different. At first, it was difficult for me to essentially say, “I know how to speak about your company better than you.” Or I at least knew the right words to use. However, most clients were highly receptive to having someone help them with the words that represented their company. Over time, I began to understand that I did have skills in writing, and at the very least, could offer perspective and consulting on their verbiage.
The world of blogging was still relatively new at that time, and there didn’t appear to be any sure-fire way to succeed. There were even blogs on how to blog more successfully, and how to profit from advertising and affiliate link systems. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I had anything to say that would be worth putting into a blog. Even if I felt as though my thoughts were worthwhile, would anyone else care to read them? Would people even find my blog to see my content in the first place? There was actually some comfort in the knowledge that perhaps nobody would ever read my words, and because of that reality, they wouldn’t find them pointless. Of course, if nobody read what I wrote, I would never be able to generate revenue, and so of course I needed readers to find me.
I was excited that something I could simply create from within myself might have some tangible fiscal value to it. There was no initial outlay of cash; I simply had to start crafting. I recalled how a favorite author, Stephen King, used to make this same observation when people told him they had always wanted to write. When a stranger, or new acquaintance would share this sentiment, he would often retort, “You know, I’ve always wanted to perform brain surgery.” His point being, one takes rigid training—the other simply requires an attempt. If you want to write, then write.
I remember sharing with my wife about the effort to make money from writing through blogs. The whole concept of these online journals, about any and all subjects, was completely new to her. After spending some time giving her a general introduction, she said, “And what will you write about?” I told her I could write about anything, including subjects that were personal to me. Weight loss, cycling, music, products I liked, places I visited, and several other potential topics. “That sounds pretty narcissistic, if you ask me,” she said. And I was immediately filled with doubt about the entire prospect.
Eventually, I recognized that while some blogs on the Internet, and even some of the articles I authored were indeed a little self-centered, there was a purpose behind my efforts in those days. There are plenty of other industries where those who create must contend with a certain amount of self-centeredness. If I was to dig even deeper, I might argue that this introspection is part of every artist and every piece of art they create. It all comes from somewhere inside, so it makes sense that what they create may contain a small part of them, or reflect the artist in some manner. Writing would be no exclusion to this concept.
The Five Keys To Effective Written Communication
As I began to write more frequently, I determined the purpose of the written communication. I used to love a TV segment on one of the morning news programs called Everyone Has a Story. The newscaster picked a city by tossing a dart at a map, then found one random person in that town to discover their story. I’ve long believed that every communication also has a clear story to tell. Whether it is verbiage on a website, a blog about a new Apple product, or a corporate communication about an internal reorganization, there is always a purpose to what is being communicated. Most ineffective communications I have read are unclear about what that focus is. In my high school journalism days, I learned that this was the nut of the story, and ineffective communicators fail to define that. A written communication may contain hundred of words and be several pages long, but the author must always be able to know what that one sentence, easily defined, main point is. Every time I sit down to craft any written communication, I start by discovering and defining what the main purpose is for the communication.
In addition to understanding my purpose for the communication, I wrote impactful sentences and paragraphs. I am the self-proclaimed king of the run-on sentence, and I’m certain there are even a few in this article. I often write how I speak, and I’m told that I can use fifty sentences, where eight would suffice. I used to believe that using as many impressive words as possible made for compelling reading, but I’ve since changed my mind. Instead, I understand that shorter sentences, that contain only necessary words, read with greater impact. At first I accomplished this by chopping run-on sentences in two, and felt as though I had made great strides in my writing. Eventually, however, I realized I wrote a lot of words that weren’t necessary, and even made a sentence weak. Now I generally strive for short paragraphs, and strong sentences, with strong verbs and nouns, and less fluff overall.
Because I was writing nearly every day, I developed my writing personality. I have also heard this referred to as a writing voice or a writing style. Aside from a tendency to write sentences that are far too long, I tend to write in a fairly casual manner. Unless I am writing a formal business proposal, I most often write as if I were speaking to someone I know well. I still attempt to write properly, but I want for my writing to be easy to read and follow. When appropriate, I will insert humor through self-deprecating comments, or through dry references that a loyal reader can connect with. Although I wanted to attend journalism school, I always imagined I would be best suited for writing a column, rather than reporting the news, and I feel my style is best geared towards feature writing. When a reader tells me they found a communication easy to read, enjoyable, or that it made them laugh, I feel as though I’ve written in my truest writing personality. Even in corporate-wide communications, I have found that I can remain relatively true to this writing style, while still being professional and informative.
Perhaps most important to my development of effective written communication, I mastered the basics of English grammar rules and usage. Perhaps I should say, I developed an extremely healthy respect for grammar, rather than claim mastery. In any case, I have a particularly strong desire to use the English language in the correct way. Although I don’t thumb my nose at people on social media who cant be bothered with knowing whether to use their, there, or they’re, I am painfully aware of their mistakes. (I was really tempted to say “there mistakes,” but grammar karma is unkind, and I know I'm already tempting writing experts with the content of this article.) I also work hard to find the best word in any sentence, and attempt to avoid overusing that word throughout the paragraph or communication. There is always a thesaurus on my bookshelf. I believe spelling errors are nearly unforgivable, particularly in the days of spell checkers. I also think a person should really make sure they understand the meaning of a word before they put it into print. In my estimation, nothing helps an author lose credibility quicker than mistreatment of grammar rules and usage.
And once I realized I didn’t know everything about writing, I employed an editor’s input as much as possible. When I was younger, I fancied myself quite the writer. In high school, I even once referred to myself as the Louis L’amour of high school writing, after learning that L’amour wrote a one-draft novel, every four months. If one rough draft was good enough for ol’ Louis, it was good enough for me. When I began writing articles for a large non-profit organization, a secretary offered to edit my articles for me. I used my L’amour line in response, and she said, “I’ve read your work, you could use an editor.” Even though her statement was harsh, her sentiment was correct. I did need an editor. She marked up my first article with more red ink than any of my high school teachers had, and I was instantly offended. However, when I rewrote the article with her suggestions, it was better. The words were stronger, and more compelling. I apologized to her, and let her mark up every article from that day forward. As time progressed, I saw less red ink on my articles, and I began to proactively implement her editorial suggestions. Even though a sentence read clearly in my head, if an editor said it wasn’t clear, I understood it wouldn’t be clear to a reader either.
In my current job, I write every day. In addition to managing all marketing efforts, creative work, and public relations, I oversee all internal and external communications for the company. I have spent the past year and a half developing our communications plan and standards matrix, and have worked to improve the way we communicate with employees, stakeholders, customers and potential customers. All is not perfect, but I feel we have made great strides as a company. These lessons I've learned from various channels of written communication help me to continually produce effective written communications, and I hope they will help you as well!