4 basic—but absolutely paramount—writing reminders

Start by crafting a scintillating headline and lead, and ask, ‘Why does the reader care?’ Also, don’t forget to make it interesting.

The amount of overwrought, boring, long-winded, clunky and just plain lousy writing in this world is astounding.

Even in professional, corporate environments–especially in professional, corporate environments—the landscape is littered with throwaway, mindless content that doesn’t merit a mention.

To be fair, writing well is a daily mental grind that requires endless amounts of creativity and discipline. Improvement requires years’ worth of practice, edits, mistakes, resilience and rewrites.

There’s no fast-track to success, but it always helps to keep the basics in mind. Let’s start with these four:

1. Write a spicy headline. How often do we save the headline for last? This is a terrible habit that afflicts writers of every ilk.

Start by crafting a headline that compels customers or colleagues to click. Use jarring words that pique curiosity, and tinker with different phrasing and juxtapositions. Test different headlines to see which ones get more clicks.

If you tend to write bland, shrimpy or wimpy headlines, use tools and technology in your favor. Pay attention to relevant trends and research, and don’t neglect the science behind what tends to get clicked.

2. Write a spicy lead. Ragan’s executive editor, Rob Reinalda, is the world’s foremost stickler on leads. He warns of these “deadly” openers that will doom your piece:

  • Rehashing old news. “Way back in 1988, George Bush was elected.”
  • Thank you, Captain Obvious. “If you work in PR or communications, we don’t have to tell you your methods of reaching stakeholders and customers has changed dramatically over the last decade.”
  • Boring your audience into submission, or sudden slumber. “It is of utmost importance to launch strategic initiatives across the enterprise to engage…”
  • Admitting that you have nothing new to add. “Everyone knows that content marketing is awesome.”
  • Referencing your catalog of great works. “In previous blog posts, I wrote extensively about the many benefits of hedgehog ownership.”

Before penning your lead, ask yourself: “Why does the reader care?” “What new and helpful information can I convey?” “What snappy sentence can I write that will encourage the reader to continue to the next paragraph?”

Write from that vantage point.

3. Avoid repetition, and delete fluff. Eighty percent of the pieces I review for Ragan have some sort of “Here’s why XXXX is important” section. It’s almost always jammed with extraneous information, long-winded sentences and links to articles or studies that were created sometime during the Obama administration.

It’s 300 words’ worth of filler that inevitably gets rehashed later in the piece, which means you’re forcing readers (and editors) to do double duty and wade through cumbersome chunks of text.

Repetition is not persuasive. Neither is superfluous data. Consider deleting that entire “building your case” section, and get straight to the meaty, helpful tips.

4. Make it interesting. What’s your hook? What about your piece has the power to grab busy, distracted readers’ attention?

So often, we get wrapped up in writing, editing and keeping the content trains moving that we lose sight of whether what we’re doing is worthwhile. Or, to paraphrase Jurassic Park‘s Dr. Ian Malcolm, we get so preoccupied with whether or not we could [create a certain piece of content], we don’t stop to think if we should.

If your piece isn’t somehow interesting, helpful or useful for your audience, can it. Move on to something else, or have the courage (and humility) to completely reshape your project and reorient it toward your readers’ preferences.

These are writing basics, but they bear repeating. Now get out and there and delete some words.

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