Is there an author or blogger or even someone at work whose writing impresses you every time? Some writers have that knack, to take words and turn them into “wow” with seemingly little effort. It’s like watching a star athlete at the top of her game flawlessly execute a move on the field.
And in reality, the writer’s ease with words came about in the same way as the athlete’s ease with maneuvers: Some inborn talent, but countless hours of diligent practice and improvement!
Maybe you don’t have time to devote to honing your writing skills to the point where they’re impressive. (I’ve been writing professionally for 20 years, and I sure as heck don’t!) But you know what you do have time for? This blog post. And this blog post is going to teach you a few secrets you can put to use right away to make your writing more appealing, more impressive and more effective—without working on your actual writing skills at all.
What is “wow”?
What gives business writing a “wow” factor? It looks professional, well-organized, lean and visually appealing. We humans cringe when we see solid blocks of text in a small font, and we dread the labor we foresee in slogging through such a document. The writing might be superb. The document might be written in such a compelling way that we can’t put it down once we start reading. But our initial impression? Ugh.
And it’s that initial impression you can improve—plus your clarity in communicating—when you put these four tips to work. No, I’m not going to tell you to use a bigger font or to make that font red—or purple or blue. That’s not how we’ll get to wow.
4 ways to add “wow” to your business writing without words
One: White space
White space is by far the easiest trick in the book for adding wow. White space makes your writing visually more appealing to the eyes and information easier to consume. What is white space? Quite literally the blank spaces around and between your text, like your margins and your paragraph spacing.
You can add white space to your writing with space between paragraphs and shorter paragraphs. To add space between your paragraphs, simply go to Format/Paragraph/Spacing. If both Before and After are set to 0 pt, you’ve probably been typing dense text. I usually set it to 0 pt Before and 6 pt After. Play with it and see what works for you. It’s that easy to add wow with just this one little trick.
Then try to write short paragraphs, because they are more appealing to the eye than long, dense paragraphs.
Here’s an example to prove my point. This is from a recent blog post I wrote:
This account executive said they would tweak the ads to try to improve the results. That’s all good, but the poorly written email puts their credibility in doubt. The use of “so” two times in such a brief message, the missing word (“as” before “a foundation”), the incomplete sentence (the period after the word “foundation” makes the next sentence incomplete), that they said they would increase “invisibility” when I think they meant visibility…these are all lazy errors. This person might be really good at their job but I’m doubting it based on their writing skills and lack of attention to detail. (If they are going to increase invisibility, then why buy ads??) And that means they have to generate even better results to win me over and earn my trust. I hope these two examples prove to you that your writing matters, and that I’ve convinced you to slow down just a little and do a better job.
But that’s not how I wrote it. I wrote it as three paragraphs, like this:
This account executive said they would tweak the ads to try to improve the results. That’s all good, but the poorly written email puts their credibility in doubt. The use of “so” two times in such a brief message, the missing word (“as” before “a foundation”), the incomplete sentence (the period after the word “foundation” makes the next sentence incomplete), that they said they would increase “invisibility” when I think they meant visibility…these are all lazy errors.
This person might be really good at their job but I’m doubting it based on their writing skills and lack of attention to detail. (If they are going to increase invisibility, then why buy ads??) And that means they have to generate even better results to win me over and earn my trust.
I hope these two examples prove to you that your writing matters, and that I’ve convinced you to slow down just a little and do a better job.
Do you see the white space between? Do you see how much more appealing it is to have three paragraphs instead of one? Sure, we were taught in school that a paragraph should be one idea, and you’re probably wondering how you’re supposed to deal with that thorny problem if you have one long paragraph as a result.
You’re going to deal with it by putting the reader first. If you can’t find a way to split up a long paragraph, rewrite it so you can.
Subheadings add wow because they help to add white space, and they give your reader’s eyes a break as they are reading. Subheadings also increase readability because they tell readers when topic is changing and they aid scanners who are simply skimming the content. They even help you as the writer to structure your content.
Subheadings make words easier on the eyes, because they break up the chunks of text and offer white space, which our eyes find restful. They can also act as stepping stones, moving your reader through your document.
They can cause the reader’s eye to stop and notice the change in the flow. They say, “This is something new that you should to pay attention to.” Done well, they can tell the whole story to the reader as a sort of executive summary.
For scanners, think of your subheadings as a way to provide a synopsis of your text, so that if someone scanned the document and only read the subheadings, they would still get something out of it and you will have still communicated.
For example, here are the subheadings from a blog post I wrote for a client many years ago. If you only read the title and subheadings, you’d get the gist of the post:
- Consider ease of use
- Tests based on data and segmentation
- Automation of the test process
- Number of variants
- Evaluating ease of use
- Understanding the results: email analytics
- Solving multiple marketing challenges
- Be realistic about how important testing is to your organization
- Caveat: Are we asking the right questions?
Using bullets adds wow to your business writing in several ways. A bulleted list can:
- Add white space
- Reduce word count and shorten your document
- Enhance readability
- Aid scanners
- Emphasize ideas
- Break down ideas into bite-sized chunks
Creating a bulleted list requires just a little more than clicking on the button on your screen, however. You do want to make sure your list is parallel in construction, meaning each phrase is written in the same way.
Is this bulleted list parallel in construction or not?
- Ensures software is up-to-date
- Prevents phishing
- Users are notified of new releases
- Enables easy access to account information
It’s not because three of the items start with a verb, and one starts with a noun. It would be parallel in construction if written like this instead:
- Ensures software is up-to-date
- Prevents phishing
- Notifies users about new releases
- Enables easy access to account information
People often get confused about whether or not to put a period at the end of each item. Here’s the rule: If you’re making complete sentences, you can use a bullet at the end of each but you don’t have to. If you’re not making complete sentences, don’t use periods.
Like bulleted lists, numbered lists offer all the same benefits as listed above. But they also create structure and keep your reader on track by literally walking them through content from one to two to three and so on.
For example, if I break down four reasons why marketers need to know more about spam issues, my reader is going to pay more attention to these four reasons when I number them in a list as follows rather than write a long sentence:
- Spam is hard to define.
- Consumers have grown weary of spam.
- Spam reports can hurt your deliverability rate.
- Most marketers don’t know how to avoid the spam label.
And to drive the point home…
To give you a quick example of the difference between a document written with these techniques and one without, I took an article written a few years ago for a client and stripped all the wow out of it. The first screen shot is with the white space, subheadings and bulleted lists:
The second screen shot is without any of those techniques, and it looks intimidating to read:
Sure, the second one is only two pages long instead of three as in the first example, but which one would you rather read? It’s the same 1,200 word information in both, but I’d bet money I’m going to communicate more clearly with my first example than my second one.
Arguably, improving your business writing skills is the best way to add wow to your writing at work. Writing that is clear, concise, effective, persuasive and error-free will both work (get you want you want) and wow (build your brand). But the four non-word techniques described here—white space, subheadings, and bulleted and numbered lists—can help give your writing a wow factor above and beyond your current writing skills—as you learn from me to improve them!
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