Become a better writer: 33 ways to level up your tech PR content
You can’t become a better writer overnight.
But you can develop habits, acquire skills, and spot opportunities that will raise the quality of your PR and content marketing campaigns. These steps are especially important for tech companies, where a focus on engineering and coding doesn’t easily translate into engaging, memorable copy.
Here are 33 ways to change that and hone your writing skills.
1. Just start. The sooner you begin, the sooner you’ll get out the garbage and find the small pearl of an idea worth developing.
2. Don’t use the self-checkout in the supermarket. Stand in line for a register and read the magazine headlines. How can you adapt them for your own content?
3. Sign up for mailing lists. All those annoying emails are your homework. Which ones got you to open? Which ones got you to click through? Why did they work?
4. Read 50 books this year. Better yet, 100. Read at the level you want to write.
— Fast Company (@FastCompany) January 21, 2016
5. Write your headline first. What’s the best possible headline for this press release, blog post, byline? Write to that ideal.
6. Draft two pages of headlines. Upworthy’s writers only do 25. Slackers. You don’t have to do it for everything you write, but if you’re struggling with a headline, give it a try. You’ll reach a point when your brain seems bone dry, but keep digging and you’ll likely hit a headline surprising and interesting and fresh.
7. Find the core of what you’re writing. Point every paragraph, every sentence, every word toward that main idea. Cut everything that doesn’t.
8. Aim for compression. How can you convey the most meaning in the fewest words?
9. Tweet. Stick to 140 characters for an exercise in concision even if Twitter raises the limit to 10,000.
10. Read critically. Why did the writer structure her article this way? Why did she start here and end there? What pushed you forward from paragraph to paragraph?
11. Listen to This American Life. This is riveting storytelling at its best.
12. Raise questions and delay the answers. Nothing compels your audience to keep reading quite like a curiosity gap.
13. Study your process. Writing one byline article seemed effortless, but then you slogged through another? Figure out why – what circumstances lead to your best work? Time? Preparation? Caffeination?
14. Identify your crutch words. Often they’re distinctive verbs or adjectives that crop up across everything you write (not talking about “a,” “the,” “I,” etc.), sometimes several times in the same article. Ban them from your vocabulary for at least 6 months. A year is better.
15. Be precise. Words like “people” and “things” are opportunities to get concrete.
16. Take a walk. You’ll see a path through many writing roadblocks when you stop trying to find one.
17. Read Businessweek’s annual jealousy list. Beyond the great examples of journalism, Businessweek’s staff explains what makes each article so good.
— Businessweek (@BW) December 15, 2015
18. Create your own jealousy list.
19. Seek out feedback. Everyone needs an editor.
20. Read your writing out loud to a coworker. Everyone advises reading your writing out loud, but few follow it. It works even better if you have an audience.
21. Don’t try to fix everything at once. For example, read through a draft focusing only on fixing structure. Read through solely to polish sentences. And so on.
22. Subscribe to the NextDraft newsletter. Not only is it a well-curated collection of the day’s top stories and best writing, Dave Pell’s headlines and descriptions themselves are fantastic examples of pithy, sharp copy.
23. Read great writing a minimum of three times. Rereading reveals the sleight of hand that keeps readers engaged.
24. Become a grammar nerd. Grammar creates order and prevents confusion for readers. The world won’t end if you refer to a company with “their” instead of “its,” but accumulating errors in spelling and grammar kills your credibility.
25. Read the Wall Street Journal’s “Today’s Markets.” I’m always impressed by how many ways the writer says the same thing. All the indexes and commodities rose, fell, or stayed the same. Yet the writer conveys those three options with a dozen different verbs.
26. Trim out “glue words.” Excessive prepositions and articles can clutter up early drafts. They hold together nouns and verbs, but as Richard Wydick notes in his book “Plain English for Lawyers,” “A well-constructed sentence is like fine cabinetwork. The pieces are cut and shaped to fit together with scarcely any glue.”
27. Stop hedging your verbs. Why use two when one will do? Instead of “Our new smartwatch helps runners track their mileage,” how about “Our new smartwatch logs runners’ mileage”?
28. Ask yourself “So what?” Get to the bottom of why your news, your products, and your story matter.
29. Give readers a reference. Context is important to any story, but especially when dealing with technical content, statistics, or other data. Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the FCC, did so to call out the cost of set-top boxes for cable and satellite TV: “over the past 20 years the cost of cable set-top boxes has risen 185 percent while the cost of computers, televisions and mobile phones has dropped by 90 percent.”
— Re/code (@Recode) January 27, 2016
30. Don’t put any idea on a pedestal. As you write, you might find a better angle or story. If you do, let go of the original idea.
31. Don’t be afraid to rewrite. Sometimes we cling to the language on the page because it’s better than a blank screen and blinking cursor. Keep every word on the chopping block. Starting fresh gives you freedom to create something better.
32. When you think your draft is finished, read it one more time. You’ll be surprised what you catch.
33. Bring out your dead. Hold onto material that’s left on the cutting room floor. It might not belong in one blog post, but it could be the seed for your next.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Let us know in a comment below.
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