Three quick tips to improve your writing


On the Road by Jack Kerouac is one of my favourite books. Its meditative and poetic prose tells the story of his travels with his delinquent friends across 1950s America, as they delve into jazz, drugs and sex. A talisman of counterculture, it’s regularly ranked as one of the greatest novels of all time. But 8% of the reviews on Amazon only deem it worthy of a single star. A reviewer called Northern Joe Bloggs labelled it “self-indulgent garbage”.

Such reviews highlight the very subjective nature of writing. Though I disagree with his point of view, there’s ultimately no concrete way of me disproving Northern Joe Bloggs. That’s the problem when trying to define what good writing is: everyone has an opinion. Nevertheless, with the aid of scientific research and some sage words from a renowned master, I’ll give it a try.

Use short sentences

You can quickly gauge the level of a writer by the average length of their sentences. Crafting concise sentences is a skill which greatly improves the readability of your work. The gov.uk website states, “research has shown that when average sentence length is 14 words, readers understand more than 90% of what they’re reading. At 43 words, comprehension drops to less than 10%.”

Writers who tend to use long sentences can end up tiring the reader as they meander on with no specific goal because the writer hasn’t accurately grasped what it is they’re trying to say but they try to fit everything in and if you had to read another four or five sentences that go on like this I’d almost certainly lose you as a reader.

Also, as a general rule, keep the word limit of your sentences to 25. Look back at your sentences and check which words are superfluous. I think of sentences like an athlete – they work hard and have zero fat.

Feel the rhythm

Short sentences are great, but this doesn’t mean you start writing like a robot. I love On the Road for its stream-of-consciousness style; it carried me away on a wave that I’d never experienced before.

Writing guru Gary Provost articulated the importance of rhythm better than I ever could:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.


Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.


So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader's ear. Don't just write words. Write music.”


Break it up

Use sub-heads. And use paragraphs properly. This is especially important for web copy. Chances are, when you first came to this page you scrolled from top to bottom and immediately scanned for the relevant information. If you liked what you saw, you started to read the article from the beginning. Sub-heads and concise paragraphs make it easier to get the gist of a web page. That’s why I broke this article up into three tightly-organised sections.

Hopefully, these nuggets have shed a little light for you on how to write better copy. Northern Joe Bloggs may disagree, but, if you follow just one of these tips, your reader will thank you for it. (That’s my opinion, anyway.)

Categories

  • Writing
  • Copywriting