“When I find a piece of writing hard to read, I immediately dislike the writer — ‘cos they couldn’t be bothered to make it easy for me.”
Damning words from Sean, an IT consultant who attended a writing workshop I ran this week. Sean’s words got us into discussing the idea of ‘likeable’ writing and, by extension, of liking the writer.
First off, what is likeable writing?
In my book, it’s writing that gives you the information you need in a simple, easy, accessible style, shot through with a touch of flair and flamboyance (from the French, meaning ‘to blaze’ or ‘flame’). Likeable writing makes reading an enjoyable, stimulating experience that endears you to the writer — even if they’re a complete stranger.
So, how do we do it? I think there are three elements:
I’m sorry, but this is an area I can’t help you with.
Assuming you’re expert in your field, you should be able to present information to the reader that is relevant and timely, with intellectual rigour and precision. If you lack that expertise, you’re unlikely to be able to influence their behaviour, emotions or views.
And if you are truly an expert, wear your learning lightly, ie make it your goal to help your reader, not to show how clever you are. Make it all about them, not you.
Clarity (from the Latin, claritas, clearness)
I’m really clear about this (!) Clear writing can be read and understood in one go, one reading. If we force our reader to re-read and re-read our words, we’re gonna lose them. Here are three practical ways of writing clearly:
1. Omit needless words. This is the best way to write concisely. By removing words that add no value, content, meaning or information, we tighten our writing. We make our point in as few words as possible. If we ramble, waffle or meander, our reader will vote with their feet (their eyes?) and stop reading.
In order to further her career => To further her career (33% shorter)
For training and quality purposes => For training and quality (20% shorter)
On a quarterly basis => Quarterly (75% shorter)
2. Shorten your sentences. The higher our ASL (Average Sentence Length, in words), the more we’re cramming into each sentence, the harder we’re making our reader work to get our meaning. In general, the harder we make our readers work, the faster we lose them. The science of readability shows that the ideal ASL is 15 – 20 words: higher than 20 and we’re over-taxing the reader’s brain; lower than 15 and our writing risks sounding simplistic or childish. The Readability Statistics in Word calculate your ASL for you, among other useful ratios. If you get stuck, contact me.
3. Use plain English. Give yourself permission to use natural, everyday, conversational language. You’ll sound human. If you use management-speak, BS-Bingo or MBA-itis, you’ll sound like a corporate drone and turn your reader off. This is NOT about dumbing-down your writing; it’s about using simpler language.
give assistance to => help
purchase => buy
request => ask
commence => begin, start, launch
depart => leave
You don’t make yourself sound smart by using needlessly formal language: you just annoy your reader (like Sean).
This is the missing link in B2B writing.
Most business writing is competent and comprehensible…but dull. And that’s usually because the writer has chosen to leave their innate, unique, authentic, inimitable human personality at the door. They pepper their writing instead with hackneyed, boilerplate, pre-fabricated phrases (We are committed to serving you…We provide leading-edge, market-facing products…Our people are our most valuable asset etc etc). This is the refuge of the lazy or the unconfident writer.
Resorting to lifeless language not only robs the writing of vitality; it also kills any joy the writer might get from writing.
What, then, is writing with personality?
It’s when the writer isn’t scared to go out on a limb and express strong views. The reader may disagree with those views, but if they’re informed and well argued, it can make for an engaging read.
Personality can also take the form of levity, ie light-heartedness; being playful with either topic or language — provided it’s appropriate in the context; not taking ourselves too seriously, poking fun at ourselves.
Finally, using plain English allows our personality to come through our writing. Nothing kills personality faster than needlessly formal, pompous, wordy language. It masks who we really are and alienates the reader.
Do any of the above and Sean might become your pen pal.
Scott Keyser is The Writing Guy. Writing is a life skill and he’s solved the riddle of how to do it well, with his rhetorica® persuasive writing system of 15 techniques — five planning, five drafting, five editing.