6 Ways to Write Better with Less

First, three tips on style from the bible of concise writing, Strunk & White's "Elements of Style":

  1. Choose a structure and stick to it.

    "Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which they occur."

    We all claim to use an outline for our packages… but do we? If you don't, try it.

  2. Omit needless words.

    "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason a drawing should contain no unnecessary lines …"

    Enough said.

    Strunk's example: "Used for fuel purposes" is weaker than "used for fuel."

  3. Use the active voice.

    "The active voice is more vigorous and direct than the passive."

    Strunk's example: "My visit to Boston shall always be remembered by me" is weaker than "I'll always remember my visit to Boston."

Now, here are three tips on basic technique from fellow direct-mail copywriter Ivan Levinson:

  1. Begin your letter with a lead-in that grabs the reader's attention.

    This is academic to most of us seasoned copywriters. But too often, the formal, stuffy tone creeps in … making language dense and unreadable.

  2. Ask a rhetorical question, then answer it.

    A popular technique. It can be over-used. But even as a starter when you sit down to write, it's a great way to get you thinking from the reader's perspective more quickly.

  3. Use some extremely short sentences.

    Again, you learn this quickly when you start writing copy. Conversational writing is quick, even clipped. As Levinson says, "Forget what your teacher told you in eighth grade. Sentence fragments, or phrases used as sentences, are fine."

You can find "Elements of Style" at any bookstore, along with many other good books to help you re-visit writing fundamentals (which even seasoned writers should do). Another great one, believe it or not, is "Stephen King on Writing."

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Published: July 16, 2001

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