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.

 

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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.

Seen this week: All the Things I Lied About

Katie-Bonna-All-The-Things-Ive-Lied-About-Main-Image-Digital.jpg-

Katie Bonna got engaged last year. And like a lot of people about to tie the knot, she found herself thinking more about her parents’ marriage.

Revisiting her memories of their relationship, and the lies that ended it, she decided to make a show about her own difficult relationship – with the truth.

So in some ways it’s ironic that what makes this work-in-progress stand out is Bonna’s trademark brand of candour.

Hooking us in with a childhood story of how she once tricked her sister into drinking her pee, she is instantly fun and relatable.

When she moves on to more intimate confidences about the stories her teenage self would tell people she fancied in order to get off with them, her self-deprecating willingness to be vulnerable draws us ever closer.

And by the time she comes to share some more difficult, adult confessions, she has changed us.

If we came into the theatre a group of relative strangers liable to judgement, we’re now a roomful of allies reflecting on our own dishonest histories.

And that, right there, is the brilliance of the piece. At the centre of this story is a writer-performer who recognises the importance of the Everyman (or woman). She understands something all good storytellers must:

That if we come love a character, it will be for their flaws, and not their strengths.

It’s in those weaknesses and imperfections that we find reassurance, and inspiration.

Thank God, we think, that everyone else is just as messed up as I am.

But if they can change, then maybe I can, too.

You can catch the second performance of All the Things I lied About on Sat Feb 6 at the Vault Festival, or hear more from Katie in Episode 1 of the Funny Thing podcast.