Five things to remember when writing copy

#1 Know your audience and focus on the purpose

Think about your subject from your reader’s point of view. Before you start writing, think about what your reader needs and the questions they will have. Consider their workload, motivation and understanding. Ask yourself:

  • How much time does my reader have for this?

  • How can I make them want to read it?

  • Will they understand abbreviations and in-house terminology?

Be clear about what you want to achieve from your writing. Aim to sum up your reason for writing in a single sentence. Use this sentence to help explain to readers what you are writing about at the beginning; this should be one of the first things you say.

#2 Plan a logical structure

Spend some time planning before you start to save time later on. List the points you want to make, then organise them into a clear structure.

Organising your information in a logical order helps your writing to flow and keeps you focused on the purpose. If you have a lot of material, a clear and coherent structure will help your reader engage more easily.

It will also give you the confidence to decide what you can leave out. Long winded, overly wordy writing can get in the way of clear communication.

#3 Write clearly, using simple English

Remember you are trying to engage, rather than impress, your readers. Be open and specific. Don’t use words that are too general and vague (see the list of words to avoid below), as this can lead to misinterpretation or empty, meaningless text.

Don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. Unless absolutely justified, use everyday words used in conversation. Avoid using jargon or technical law terms unless necessary in context. The first time you use an abbreviation or acronym, explain it in full. If you are writing a long document, consider adding a glossary of terms.

Keep sentences short. An average of 15 to 20 words is ideal, with the occasional use of much shorter statements for emphasis. Don’t make paragraphs too long, it is tiring for the reader. Break up text with sub-headings. Maintain the flow by starting some of your sentences with connectors like ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘however’, ‘so’ and ‘because’.

Use direct language when you are giving instructions. Commands will get your message across faster e.g. ‘follow these steps’ and ‘read this information carefully’. If you need to soften the tone of your instruction, say ‘please’.

Keep the word order simple. Make your sentences active rather than passive. Active sentences give your writing energy and clarity. They are quicker and easier to read and are more memorable. As an example – ‘the CEO gave a speech’ (active) not ‘a speech was given by the CEO’ (passive).

Use verbs. Try not to turn verbs into nouns. For example, say: ‘We will discuss this later’, not ‘We will have a discussion about this later’. Using too many nouns will make sentences longer and more complicated than they need to be.

Use sub-headings. These are a good way of breaking up text into easy-to-manage chunks and they help you organise the points you want to make in a logical way.

4# Find the right tone of voice

Be open, positive, human and polite.

When we speak, our tone of voice communicates a mood that adds meaning to the words we say. The tone we use will depend on our audience, purpose and subject matter. Use positive words.

Where appropriate, use ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘you’ to make the writing more human.

#5 Edit and proofread

Allow plenty of time for proper editing and proofreading after you have completed your first draft.

Editing and proofreading tips:

  • When editing, it may help to read your work out loud. Does it sound natural? Can you read whole sentences without running out of breath? This is a good way of checking whether sentences are too long, repetitive or full of jargon.

  • Find quiet time and space to proofread properly. Consider using a ruler under each line as you proofread. This will force you to slow down and read one word at a time.

  • Be ruthless; cut out any words you don’t need. For maximum impact, use a minimum of words.If possible, proofread from paper copies. On average you will find 15 per cent more mistakes than when reading from a screen. But don’t forget to check any hyperlinks on screen and across different devices.

  • Get someone who is unfamiliar with the subject to do the final edit and proofread.

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