Friday, July 30, 2010

Five Writing Tips to Help You Write Like a Pro

Guest post by Jim Schakenbach 

Not everyone is comfortable writing. Email, blogs, and other digital media have forced many non-writers into the unenviable position of having to crank out prose on a regular basis. If you'd rather have a root canal than face a blank text screen, here are some tips that will have you writing like a pro in no time:

1. Short sentences are your friend.

Anyone can string together a lengthy, unclear, and ineffective sentence. Many people are afraid that short sentences make them look stupid. But the more you struggle to add phrases, lengthen a sentence, and try to look smart, the worse it gets. Instead, relax and write as simply as possible. Once you embrace brevity, it is remarkable how much clearer you can write. 

2. Banish the exclamation point.

Many people mistake the use of an exclamation point as a way to express the importance of something. In reality, it just makes you sound shrill. Avoid it. Exclamation points - especially in business documents - look amateurish, over-excited, and irritating. 

3. Use quotation marks correctly. 

Quotation marks are used by many for emphasis or to identify a statement or phrase, such as a tagline or slogan in business. Both are wrong. Quotation marks are for identifying the exact words spoken by someone; for example: "This year's fourth quarter sales figures are significantly better than last year's," stated Acme Corporation's vice president of corporate sales. It's simple - if the specific words did not come from a person's mouth (or keyboard), do not stick them between quotation marks. 

4. Stop random capitalization.

Nothing is more distracting or confusing than random capitalization - the irrational sprinkling of capital letters throughout an article, white paper, sales report, or news release. The only time initial capital letters should be employed is to abbreviate a longer name or phrase or to identify proper nouns such as the name of a person, place or thing (John, Texas, General Electric, Congress) or someone's title (Senator Mary Smith). Do not capitalize a job function (vice president of corporate sales, technical manager, senior engineer) unless it precedes a person's name as their specific title and do not capitalize generic products. An electronics company might manufacture circuit boards, but not Circuit Boards. 

5. Avoid obfuscation.

Huh? I'll bet some of you Googled for a definition, right? My point exactly. Stop needlessly torturing the English language. If you're reaching for a twenty-five cent word when a five-cent word will do just fine, you're unnecessarily complicating things (which, of course, is the definition of obfuscation). Even worse, you're probably just confusing your audience. Is that what you really want to do? 

I'll let you in on one final little secret to good writing. If you have not noticed it already, all five points above have one thing in common: simplicity. Good writing is simple - that's what makes it both hard and easy at the same time. If you strive to simplify your writing, you'll be well on your way to becoming a better writer.

Jim Schakenbach, owner of BIGWORDS Content Development, is a freelance writer and marketing communications consultant working primarily with B2B and technology accounts. He specializes in creating clear, compelling marketing messages for complex products and technologies. Email him at, visit his website at


  1. Great article! (Okay, I was just being cheeky with the exclamation point). However, I do fall into the exclamation point trap often when I'm trying to make an email with a not so happy topic a little more light. It isn't very professional. Even if I'm not doing technical writing for my company I can at least keep my emails clear and succinct. Thank you for the tips. I look forward to reading Ask the Publishing Guru each day and know that it is making me a better writer.

  2. This is valuable information. KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) has been a moto I try to use often. Thanks.

  3. Great advice, thank. I particularly like the the keep the sentence short advice. Whenever I look at my long sentences, I see that I've expressed a simple concept in the most awkward way possible.

  4. So true. I work in the internal communications industry and so many writers overuse capital letters especially on job titles. I guess the courses that we used to attend where we learnt how to write correctly just aren't run anymore.

  5. I once removed an entire paragraph, or more, and replaced it with two words. My writing technique had gotten in the way of my writing, something I could't see until years later, and my technique had evolved. I blog a lot about that evolution.

    Marc Vun Kannon

  6. I've definitely committed 4 out of 5. I do agree on getting back to the basics. Will keep these tips in mind. Thanks.


Who links to my website?