The words you choose and the way you put sentences and paragraphs together combine to make an overall shape, and that shape is the voice your readers perceive for you.
The way you write can make a big difference to how easy it is to get your message across, and readers will also be extracting clues to decide whether to like and trust you.
So, what sort of writing style do you want to have? Here are some common baseline styles to think about.
When you’re working in academic circles (or perhaps specialist teams in other settings), one of the key payoffs of your writing can be to show people how clever you are. It’s a natural social status thing, but it can lead to some peculiar writing. There’s a perceived reward for using big words, complicated sentences and jargon.
Now jargon can be a very useful thing, for speeding up communication between people in a particular field. But you need to be able to adapt to a different style of writing when communicating to a more general audience.
This includes a lot of unnecessarily long words, convoluted language and clichéd phrases.
“At the end of the day, the company will deliver a world‑class service to yourself.”
“We will help you.”
This style is common among people working in business and the public sector. I think that’s because they’ve seen it in communications they’ve had from organisations, so they think it’s the right way to do things. Or they pick it up from people around them, as the way things are done.
But really, it just looks like struggling to control cumbersome language that they’re not comfortable with.
I say it’s more respectful to customers and colleagues to take the time to communicate clearly and concisely. Then they can absorb your message quickly and move on to their next thing.
This uses lots of highly descriptive language, with plenty of metaphor and other stuff thrown in. Doing it well is a brilliant skill for poetry and some kinds of fiction: it’s great at evoking emotions and pulling sensory impressions from the reader’s memory. It’s not great, though, for communication that’s trying to get points across effectively and efficiently.
This is a better model for most communication. I don’t mean making everything a tabloid headline:
“Nottingham customer in tax refund shocker!”
“Life coach helped me focus, says mum of 3!”
I mean the way the writing is clear and concise because space is precious. The story is competing with others in the publication, and the reader has to be able to skim it and zoom in where they’re interested, so journalists have to trim the fat. They’re also good at putting the key points first: editors tend to “cut from the bottom”, so the material expanding on aspects of the story has to be expendable.
You might want to try rewriting a piece (your own or grabbed from elsewhere) in this trimmed-down style.
Alongside writing well, and to suit your audience, you have to write as you. We want to hear what you have to say, in your voice. Do you have one? Do you know what its qualities are?
If you haven’t done much writing it may take time to evolve, and pass through phases of mimicking other writers. If you’ve written for a while, your style has probably developed unconsciously. It should flow naturally; but it may be worth doing a bit of conscious fine-tuning. What does your audience say about it? Do you have any habits that are off-putting or jarring? Are you holding back from expressing yourself fully?
When people tell you they like the way you write, you’ve got something! And when they do, they’ll want to read more. A great writing voice is a treasured experience.
This content is a tweaked excerpt from my book
The Radio-Controlled Message Bottle: writing to communicate.
Check it out here.