This article is the second phase of "Fight Writer's Block and Produce Killer Content with Four Easy Strategies." Because I advised you not to edit yourself in the first phase, now it's time to tackle improving your content. I recommend taking a break for a few hours or a day, and then going back to improve it by following these steps:
1. Trim the fat.
Review your writing and see how many words you can cut out. This is my favorite kind of editing! For example:
Program Mission The mission of the Portland Development Program is to build relationships with small business owners and offer programs that offer networking for development of new small businesses.
The extra words are highlighted in red. You don’t need to say “the mission is” because it’s in the heading, and we know the name of the program. Here's an improved version with less fat:
Program Mission Build relationships with small business owners and offer networking programs to develop new small businesses.
Another place fat appears is when nouns end in -tion:
“The employees will collaborate in the creation of a new manual.”
Is better worded as:
“The employees will collaborate to create a new manual.”
2. Minimize use of the passive voice.
Whenever you can, use active sentences. For example, instead of:
“A seminar was held on Friday evening,”
You can say:
“We held a seminar on Friday evening.”
See how it’s much more interesting to read? I believe "we" is friendlier than some undisclosed passive entity.
In technical writing, so many people seem to think that passive voice is critical for business documents. In my entire career I've been trying to train that out of people! Even if the "first person" is the name of the company, it's always better to say "The CH2M team conducted an environmental assessment" rather than "An environmental assessment was conducted." The second example leaves you wondering who did it!
3. Try to avoid overly complicated sentences.
If you read a sentence out loud and have to take another breath, it’s too long. Shorter sentences make reading easier. For example:
“After much careful thought, we have reached the difficult decision to close our Newberg operations, so we’ve been winding down our business there over the past few weeks, and this process should be complete during July.”
Break it up. Shorter sentences increase readability. When you read it aloud, doesn’t it tire you out? Here’s a better way to say it:
“After much careful thought, we’ve decided to close our Newberg operations. We’ve been winding down our business there over the past few weeks. The process should be complete during July.”
Readability should always be your top priority. Try to have just one idea per sentence.
4. Explain less-known terms.
Again, think back to writing to your mom or dad, as I suggested in Part 1 of this series. Are they going to know what you are talking about? For example, if you talk about Self-Enhancement, Inc., make sure to explain that it is a local nonprofit organization that is dedicated to guiding underserved youth to realize their full potential. (I interviewed the chief operations officer of Self-Enhancement, Inc., Libra Forde, on my podcast, so I know a bit about the organization.)
5. Minimize acronyms.
Acronyms (for example, BLM for Black Lives Matter) often slow down your readers. They are actually not reader friendly at all because your first goal is for your readers to understand what you are writing.
When you do use an acronym, make sure to spell it out the first time you use it. Often, there’s more than one meaning for an acronym. (BLM also is the abbreviation for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.)
If you use the name or phrase many times through the document, use the acronym, but if you use it only once or twice, it’s more accessible and readable to spell it out. When I edit or write a long document with a lot of acronyms, I keep a style sheet to keep track of the first use.
6. Use specific examples to illustrate your points whenever necessary
For example, “Susanna Lee wanted to learn how to start her own business, recreating the foods her mom taught her how to cook...but she had a young son at home. Our free child care and preschool programs made it possible for Susanna to attend classes to learn how to become an entrepreneur. Because of the head start from the small business program, Susanna now owns a successful catering business called Dragon Bites.”
7. Consider ways to illustrate your points and data through graphics, images, and bullets
To improve readability, you should aim to have something other than text in each half-page of your document. You can use images to enhance your messages (steer clear of clip art please!), graphics to clarify your data, and text enhancements like bullets, bold/italic, and pull quotes to improve readability.
Data always illustrate points better than text, especially when presented as a graphic.
Identify possibilities to visually display data wherever you can. It will bring your message home! Infographics are so much more fun to read than text, like this one we created for the CH2M Sustainability and Corporate Citizenship Report:
Hope you've enjoyed this two-part series about producing killer content! Do you have any strategies to add?
Contact me if you can use some help with your writing, editing, communications, or marketing. With over 30 years of experience in the environmental consulting industry, I am passionate about sustainability and corporate citizenship, equity & inclusion, businesses that use their power for good, and doing everything I can to create a kinder, more sustainable, and just world.
Fertile Ground Communications LLC is a certified women-owned business enterprise, disadvantaged business enterprise, and emerging small business.