5 tricks for making your writing more engaging
There’s nothing worse than staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page with a deadline looming. If sheer force of will could magically convert us into Jane Austens and C.S. Lewises, we’d all be a lot more productive and a lot less self-conscious about the way we write. (Plus, there would be more amazing literature and fewer trashy romance novels… I think.) Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
Whether or not writing is an actual job requirement or just something you do when you sit down to respond to an email, learning how to write well is a fundamental skill that can help you to express yourself clearly and communicate better with others. And while becoming a good writer does take time and practice, there are a few things that you can do to improve your writing immediately.
1. Start by handwriting
When you write by hand, you stimulate the parts of the brain that are connected to creativity and learning new things. Studies have shown that students learn and retain new concepts faster when they wrote them out by hand rather than simply reading them or watching someone else write them. They were also able to express more creative and varied solutions to problems or questions when they were handwriting rather than typing.
I’ve found this to be true for myself. I consistently find that the ideas come faster and are easier to express throughout the writing process when I start with handwriting and then move to a computer.
- Take Action: You don’t have to write everything out by hand. Just start with a pen and paper and do some brainstorming. Make a list, draw a mind map, write a few sentences that identify the core message of what you want to say. You may find that it’s just the jumpstart you need to get the juices flowing.
2. Put yourself in your reader's shoes
Compelling writing speaks to us as readers. It offers us something that inspires, intrigues, or helps us, or it expresses something that we identify with.
If you want to write something that others want to read, start by trying to get inside their headspace for a moment. If you take a moment to think about who they are, what motivates them, and what their needs are, you can use that information to create something compelling that they will relate to, remember, and use.
- Take action: Take a minute to brainstorm about your reader and how your writing could help them. If you can, try to have a specific person (real or imagined) in your mind’s eye. What inspires, motivates, or concerns them? What are their needs? What problem are you helping them solve? Keep those answers at the back of your mind as you write, and try to make your writing line up with that.
3. Use sentences of different length
Paying attention to the length of your sentences is a great way to keep your writing engaging and can help you to convey ideas in different ways. Short sentences are forceful and emphatic. Long sentences, on the other hand, can help to explain ideas in greater depth or detail.
If you use only one sentence length, your writing will be monotonous and your reader will get bored. On the other hand, there’s something about mixing short and long sentences together that makes writing rhythmic and engaging – a little like music.
- Take action: Check to see if you’re mixing up the length of your sentences. If a paragraph feels a little boring or stilted, try splitting or joining two sentences (where it makes sense!) and see if it makes a difference.
4. Read your writing out loud
There’s a really great article over at Men With Pens that covers this in much greater detail, but when it comes down to it, reading out loud forces you to slow down and process your writing in a new way. There’s something about saying and hearing the words out loud that helps you to identify flaws in a way that silent reading just can’t do.
I started doing this as an undergrad student writing history papers into the wee hours. It was 3 or 4 AM and everyone else was asleep, so it was more like reading in a whisper… but it helped me to process my writing as a reader or as someone listening to it, and spot errors that I otherwise would have missed.
- Take action: You guessed it. Read your writing out loud. Whisper if you have to; you won’t be the first one!
5. Format for readability
Make it as easy as possible for your reader to consume your information quickly. In the age of the internet, we don’t read the way we used to. One study has shown that people read web pages in an F-shaped pattern, first reading horizontally but quickly switching to a vertical “skim” of the content instead of taking it in word by word.
So how do you adjust your writing so that people absorb all of your great ideas, if not every single word? The answer is formatting: If you can, use headings to break up long blocks of text. Use shorter paragraphs and/or bullets and lists. Use bold to highlight key phrases that you want your reader to see. All of these are ways that you can “help” your reader move through your writing faster by guiding their eyes to the most important points.
This doesn’t work in every case. If you’re writing in a formal setting (a research paper, for example), you may find yourself bound by specific rules and formats. In this case, pay careful attention to the opening and closing sentences of your paragraphs. Do either of these capture the key idea of what you’re trying to express? (You need one "key idea" sentence for every paragraph -- it usually goes at the beginning, but sometimes at the end.) The idea here is the same as with formatting strategically: this is probably where your reader’s eye will land, so make the most of it.
- Take action: Take a look at your writing and identify the key points that you want your readers to pick up on. Use one or two of the ideas above to “help” your reader see those specific points, no matter how quickly they’re skimming.
Bonus: Pay attention when you read
Okay, so this isn’t a writing tip per se… but it’s one of the most important things that has helped me improve my writing when I wasn’t sure where to start. As a history student in university, my textbooks taught me how to structure an argument in my research papers. As a professional, other organizations’ communications materials give me new ideas for ways to improve the materials that I produce. And as a blogger, I am constantly learning about how to better communicate with my readers from other bloggers who are doing amazing things with their writing.
Having a great idea is one thing, but expressing it well is another thing entirely. What are other writers doing that makes them effective? Pay attention to the way that they structure their writing, and you may find some great ideas that you can implement yourself.
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As with all skills, good writing takes practice and time to develop. There are tips and tricks, however, that can help you improve quickly. These are some of the things that have helped me most over the years – and hopefully they’ll help you too.
Question: Can you see any of these working for you? What tips and tricks have you used in the past to make your writing better?