8 Writing Rules for Entrepreneurs

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5 min read

This story appears in the October 2014 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

There are two kinds of people: Those who think they can write, and those who think they can't. Very often, both are wrong. The truth is this: Writing well is part habit, part knowledge and part giving a damn.

But, you may be asking, who cares about writing anymore? In a world dominated by the short and snappy--click-bait headlines, tweets, Instagram, GIFs, Vine, Snapchat and YOLO and LOL--it might seem pedantic to focus on quality writing.

In fact, writing matters more now, not less. Business is driven by online content, and words are our emissaries. They tell our customers who we are.

Yet so often, they are overlooked. Think of it this way: If your website did not have its visual branding in place, would a visitor recognize it as yours?

Are you telling your story from your unique perspective, with a voice and style that's clearly all you? You should be.

Here are eight rules to help you hone your writing voice on your website, blog and social channels.

1. Use real words. Is your website or blog littered with revolutionary, value-added, impactful, cutting-edge, best-of-breed, mission-critical words designed to leverage and synergize the current paradigm? Words like that are the chemical additives of business writing: Maybe one or two used sparingly won't matter much, but too many will poison your content. Forget the buzzwords, and say what you really mean.

2. Avoid frankenwords, weblish and words pretending to be something they're not. Frankenwords are words weirdly bolted together to create stiff, bizarre versions of themselves, typically ending in -ize or -ism or -istic (incentivize, bucketize). Avoid nouns masquerading as verbs (workshopping, journaling) and verbs masquerading as nouns (learnings). And definitely avoid weblish like k thx ur welcome.

3. Use the active voice. The passive voice isn't technically incorrect, but it tends to sound stilted and awkward. You'll vastly improve your writing by making your verbs active. Active sounds zippier and more alive.

So, instead of "The video was edited by a guy named Hibachi," try "A guy named Hibachi edited the video." A simple but surprisingly effective change.

4. Ditch weakling verbs for more descriptive ones. Bold action words will breathe life into your writing. Avoid generic phrases; use expressive language that paints a vivid picture in the reader's mind.

Instead of "It might seem like a good idea, but it's probably not in good taste to put a QR code on a tombstone," try "It might seem like a good idea, but it's probably not in good taste to etch a QR code on your loved one's tombstone."

5. Lose adverbs, except when they enhance meaning. Most writers use adverbs gratuitously, tossing them in when they add nothing. In the previous sentence, the adverb gratuitously is necessary, because it tells you how most writers use adverbs. Without it, the sentence reads "Most writers use adverbs." Well, duh.

Novelist Stephen King says the road to hell is paved with adverbs. It's preferable to convey mood and explain things more subtly in dialogue and action, as opposed to inserting an adverb and expecting it to do the work for you.

"Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly," King writes in his memoir On Writing. "It's by no means a terrible sentence (at least it's got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there."

Later he adds, "What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn't this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn't firmly an extra word? Isn't it redundant?"

6. Use clich?s only once in a blue moon. They're for lazy business writers. You've heard them all: at the end of the day, move the needle, take a 30,000-foot view, open-door policy, all things being equal.

Sometimes, clich?s can offer a quick reference or shorthand (on the same page). But too many will make you sound just like everyone else--exactly the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.

7. Trim word bloat. Say things simply, with empathy for the reader. The use of more words does not make you sound more smart. On the contrary, it contributes to content obesity. So, instead of "in order to," say "to." Instead of "ways by which," use "ways." Trim "despite the fact that" to "although."

8. Break some grammar rules. It's OK to start a sentence with "And," "But" or "Because." It's OK to write a single-word sentence. And a one-sentence paragraph? Why not? Now that we're grown-ups, we can safely break some rules we learned in school when doing so adds energy and momentum to our writing. Grammar does matter. But readability, personality and emphasis matter, too.

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