5 tips for writing like a human being

Cyberman

If you’re worried your business copy might leave readers thinking they’re the last survivors of a cyborg invasion, try these tactics out in your next blog, ad or article.

1. Use everyday words.

Real experts know their subject so well that they can explain it to anyone – including their Gran. So if you don’t understand your topic, covering up with a load of jargon will only make you look like you’re hiding something.

Instead, ask questions until you get it. THEN start writing, and you’ll find you don’t need the jargon anymore.

2. Be specific.

Instead of flowery descriptions, use relatable details that help the reader imagine the subject, and keep you out of the picture.

For example, “In 1984, Big Brother watches every move Winston Smith makes” says a lot more about the book than “1984 is Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece”, and doesn’t conjure up the same image of the writer smirking at their own cleverness.

That’s just distracting. And a bit gross…

3. Make it personal.

We all like to think of ourselves as individuals – not part of one big, samey blob of humanity whose main function is to walk around buying stuff. Don’t be the person whose writing tells people otherwise.

Talking about your organisation? Use ‘we’. About the reader? Say ‘you’. For groups of people, go for words that sound human and specific – try music fans, book lovers or theatre-goers instead of users or customers.

4. Ask questions.

You already do this when you’re chatting to people – it’s just polite, right?

It’s the same in writing. Including questions you think the reader will be curious about shows that you’re interested in them, and understand their position – which you do, because you’re not a robot.

5. Choose words you’d say out loud..

If in doubt, read it out. Is that how you’d say it to:

Your boss?
Your workmates?
Your friend?
Your Mum?

If not, it’s time to redraft.

 

The only animal that writes

 

dogwriter

As far as I know, human beings are the only animals that write. At least on this planet.

We’re also the only animal that reads. So it’s amazing how often business writing fails to connect with readers as people.

So why do writers find it so hard to sound human?

Right now it seems like everyone’s taking the word of organisations they used to trust with not just a pinch, but a whole whole fistful, of salt.

The more their comms staff try to put this right, the worse it seems to get. And that’s largely down to a common tactic used by people who speak or write for organisations in this situation: playing the expert card.

This involves using elaborate language or technical jargon to:

a) Cover up our real meaning when we think people won’t like what we have to say.

Or

b) Make us sound clever when we’re feeling the exact opposite, because we’re struggling to understand our subject.

As professional writers, we can sometimes feel like the captain of the school debating team in the final round of a competition – lumbered with a topic we don’t know much about, a deadline that gives us very little time to prepare, and an argument to make that we suspect might be a bit… well, dodgy.

No one can write well in this situation, so the usual result is the kind of writing that pretty much just says:

‘This is too complicated for you, but that’s okay. You can trust me to sort it out for you because I really do know my onions much better than any other onion-seller. Honest. Here are a load of long words like Amaryllidaceae to prove it.’

Then we leave the office and remember that we’re human beings – just in time to quickly knock off a hilarious and insightful Facebook post or two on the train, have our families in stitches over the dinner table, or entertain our friends with stories about that holiday.

Because we know instinctively that the stories we tell are what feeds our relationships with other people. They’re our best tool for making connections.

But somehow, when we’re in work mode, writing on behalf of someone, or something, other than ourselves, we lose the ability to sound human. 

So what can we do about it?  

The good news is that, if you’re a human yourself, you already know what to do.

But to make it a bit easier to remember when you’ve got a deadline looming and 19 million other things to think about, I’ll put it all in one place in the next post. See you there.