Enhance Your Copy and Content Writing Skills by Following This Golden Rule of Writing

Writer sitting on couch with laptop

It’s a writing lesson I’ll never forget.

Although it was taught to me over 30 years ago, I still use it to this day.

And if you practice this rule whenever you sit down to write, it's guaranteed to enhance your writing skills. It will also make you look like a genius not just to your client but to people who read what you write.

I learned this writing rule from Bill Bonner, the founder of Agora Publishing. If you're not familiar, Agora is a newsletter publishing company with offices all over the world.

For Bill, creating Agora was a way to turn his love of writing into a gigantic publishing business, with revenues that at one time topped $1 billion.

Bill is the kind of guy that seemed to have a natural affinity for writing. By this I mean, he never struggled with how to express his ideas with words. One of the secrets to his writing success was picking the right words to use.

And that brings me to Bill's golden rule of writing: Often the simplest word can be the most effective.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about …

Before an article was published in a newsletter, Bill would read through the draft copy, especially if it was written by a newbie writer. And in doing so, he would edit the content line by line.

In one instance, Bill saw the word utilized, and circled it with a red pen, meaning delete it. When the writer asked why, he said, "This word is not conversational. And if it doesn't come across like a conversation, no one is going to read what you wrote. Just say use instead."

Simple is better.

Studies have shown that using scholarly-sounding words or complex phrases will backfire. Because as it turns out, trying too hard to sound smart makes you less authoritative as a writer.

That's what Daniel Oppenheimer, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences, found in a series of experiments he put together in 2017.

Professor Oppenheimer had a group of students read a variety of documents including grad school applications, thesis excerpts, and philosophy papers. But with some of the samples, Oppenheimer altered the content by injecting unnecessarily long words or adding complex statements.

He then asked the students to rate the perceived intelligence of the authors of each thing they read. He repeated this experiment several times with different groups of students.

The result was the same each time. The altered documents were consistently rated as less intelligent than those that used simple, clear language.

Of his findings, Oppenheimer says, "One thing is certain: write as simply and plainly as possible and it's more likely you'll be thought of as an intelligent person."

If you can get the prospect to respect you as the writer, the more inclined they are to trust what you say. And the more trust you build, the easier it is to get that prospect to act … whether that's hitting the buy button or clicking for more information.

But it runs deeper than this …

Your job as a writer is to control what kind of experience your reader will have by directing their attention. And you do this by using simple words and phrases.

The risk with using big vocabulary is that it distracts the reader. They have to dig in their memory to remember exactly what the words mean and, in some cases, might not be familiar with them at all.

If they're concentrating on the meaning of the word, they surely aren't interested in buying what you're selling.

Another thing that happens when using complex words and unusual phrases is that it can even garble up the meaning of what you've written. This too will lose the reader's attention.

So how do you write simply? You can do this by:

  1. Avoid using unnecessary words. When you write, be conscious of the words you're choosing, or, as Mark Twain said, "Don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in."
  2. Write short sentences. Simple sentences are easy to read and easy to digest. Break up long blocks of copy into fewer sentences.
  3. Use the active voice. It makes your writing more engaging. Say, "The dog chases the ball," instead of, "The ball is being chased by the dog."
  4. Edit your work for simplicity. When you finish your first draft and start editing, look for unnecessary words, sentences that can be trimmed or rewritten in the active voice, and any places to tighten up passages of copy.
  5. Use writing software apps such as Grammarly, Hemingway Editor, or Flesch-Kincade readability score. These programs "up" your writing skills by showing you passages of copy that can be improved.

Bottom line: any time you write, whether it's a copywriting project, a text message, an email, or an article, always choose simple over complex.

The conversational tone makes reading natural and relatable, making it more likely your reader will respond with the action you want to happen.

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Published: April 4, 2024

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