Archive for July 13, 2010

Punching It Up a Notch

Sure, everyone knows how to write a sentence, but crafting punchy, exciting, and cleanly written content can be daunting for some.  Here are some tips to add some serious zip to your next piece of content.

If you’ve been writing for more than five minutes, you’ve probably been told your writing needs more “punch”. And if you’re like me, your response is something like, “Thanks, but what the heck does that actually mean?” (Ok. That’s just what I want to say).

People use the term so frequently and offer clear explanations and actionable advice so infrequently that no workable definition of “punchy” copy exists. But neither does “safe” offshore oil drilling and people still keep asking about that, too.

Over the years, I’ve tried to come up with a set of models and criteria that pin down punch. Based on input from clients and my own experience, I’ve determined that punchy copy meets these criteria:

  • Striking and precise description
  • Strong verbs
  • Simple sentences
  • Flowing rhythm
  • Concise expression of ideas

From this, I developed a few strategies that snag that pesky punch and bend it to my will! Here’s how:

1. Choose the best words for the job
The most obvious way to add zest to your copy is word choice. Look at this paragraph from a May 2010 Esquire article by Tom Junod called “Hillary Happy”:

She is wearing black pants and a boxy jacket, creamsicle in color, jauntily severe, country-club Maoist, with a scarf wrapped around her neck like a bandage. Her hands are folded before her, and among the men assembled around the lectern, she looks as small as a Rolling Stone.

“Jauntily severe” and “country-club Maoist” are crisp and precisely descriptive. And even though they don’t seem to go together at first, they build on each other to bring the picture into sharper focus. The penultimate similes in each sentence (“scarf wrapped around her neck like a bandage” and “as small as a Rolling Stone”) are like bonus icing on an already delicious cake.

And note how the word “creamsicle”. “Orange” might have worked, but that’s really a range of colors. “Creamsicle” is a specific, pastel shade; and no other term would describe Secretary Clinton’s jacket quite as well.

STRATEGY: Begin looking for great word choice in the stuff you read every day and study the best examples. In your own work, draft as quickly as you can, then go back through the piece and look for opportunities to insert more descriptive, precise language. This is often where metaphors and similes begin to congeal. If you need some help, try the Tell-Show Strategy. Take any simple sentence that mentions something you can describe and write it on the “Tell” side of the chart. Visualize the sentence in your mind and put all the things you see, feel, smell, touch, hear on the “Show” side.

2. Use better verbs
Verbs really are where the action is. Using the right verb brings a zing to your copy. Here’s how:

Replace weak verbs with strong verbs. Strong verbs not only convey actions, they also tell the reader how actions are performed. Here’s an example from a Tad Friend piece on Steve Carell in the July 5, 2010, New Yorker:

A reality show like “Jersey Shore” attracts a different audience than a guys-high-fiving dramedy like “Men of a Certain Age” or a mockumentary sitcom like “Modern Family” or “The Office” — yet they all plan for unplanned moments, engineering scenarios like life minus all the boring parts.”

“Creating”, “making”, or even the more awkward “coming up with” could have worked in place of “engineering”, but the careful choice of the stronger, more specific verb tells us not only that the scenarios were made, but how. “Engineering” completes the construction metaphor begun with “plan” and “unplanned” and establishes that the situations weren’t random events but deliberate scenarios built with technical expertise of a highly-trained professional.

Replace multi-word verbs with single-word verbs. Consider this sentence: “I called him to set up a meeting for Friday.” Now this one: “I called him to schedule a meeting for Friday.” The second sentence is tighter and technically more precise as well.

Reduce “state of being” verbs. Sometimes we rely on forms of the verb “to be” when more precise options are available. Here’s an example:

  • Original: “We can now reassure customers that if there was an event that would cause extraordinary losses, we are confident that their assets will be protected.”
  • Replacement of “state of being verb”: “We can now reassure customers that if an event occurred that caused extraordinary losses, we are confident that their assets will be protected.”
  • Strong verb choice: “We can now assure customers that their assets will be protected if extraordinary losses occur.”

STRATEGY: Review the verbs in your draft. Replace weak verbs with stronger, more descriptive ones. Then evaluate your use of multi-word and state-of-being verbs to see if you can find replacements that will make your writing better.

3. Improve fluency with simpler sentences
Simple sentences are easier to understand than long ones. And they’re easier to read, too. Sometimes this means using short sentences. But a piece full of only short sentences gets old fast, so mix things up by crafting paragraphs with sentences comprised of different numbers of phrases and clauses. Sentence fluency—the rhythm and flow of language we readers experience, especially when they read aloud—is word choice’s partner in the dance. Together, they give writing the “1-2 punch” we’re all after.

This is a 38-word sentence. Notice how the punctuation, word choice and placement of verbs give readers something to hang their understanding on:

If you spot a four-part, 38-word statement, split it into smaller parts, rearrange words and required bits of grammar, and then read it over to make sure you’ve retained the logic and fluency of the original longer sentence.

Of course, all long sentences don’t need to be. If you’ve got a long sentence, you can split it into logical parts and work things around to see what works best, like this:

Longer, more complex sentence: Life insurance policies are long-term, multi-year contracts and the continuation of benefits is critical for policyholders.

Shorter, simpler sentence: Life insurance policies are long-term contracts that should not be interrupted.

Split into two sentences: Life insurance policies are long-term, multi-year contracts. Continuation of benefits is critical for policyholders.

STRATEGY: Read your draft aloud to evaluate fluency. Use the tactics above to revise as you go—shortening long sentences, listening for the necessary punctuation of longer sentences, and splitting up really long ones along the way.

4. Be concise
Many of us learned to pad our writing in school where arbitrary minimum length requirements encouraged us to use more words than necessary. But outside the halls of academe, readers prefer the fewest words possible. One way to “punch up” your copy is to jettison unnecessary information in favor of the key details readers want or need. In fact, most of us can prune 15 to 20 percent of our words without losing important content.

Our goal is a piece that has just the “right” details—the evidence, examples and explanations that paint a vivid picture for our reader and create deeper understanding. Though the Junod example provides us with a boat-load of descriptive detail, he uses relatively little language. How vivid a picture could you paint in 48 words? To figure out what those details are, consider your audience: What background information do they possess? What questions might they have?

STRATEGY: Get a word count on your work. Make a pass through with the goal of cutting 20% and still leaving the most important ideas intact.

By now, you’re probably thinking, “Geez, E. Thanks for all these revision passes. What kind of time do you think I have?” It seems like a lot of work—and it is at first. But with practice, you’ll be able to deploy most of these strategies in one butt-kicking process. Try any one of them and you’ll find that elusive punch. Try ‘em all and you’ll score a knockout.



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