You are not Ernest Hemingway: Lessons on writing from Fire Bee’s Heather Hughes

It’s lazy writing to open an article with a quote, but I can’t resist the great Dorothy Parker:

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Fair point to Dorothy; writing is hard. If you weren’t initiated into its mysteries as a student, it’s tough to fill the gaps as an adult. Not to worry, though—I’m here with a cheat sheet for taking your writing skills up a notch.

Pick a style and stick with it.
I’m a PR pro by trade, so I use the Associated Press style. Pick the one that’s right for your industry and don’t deviate from it. Nothing screams “amateur” like inconsistent style.

Use the active voice.
You might remember this from high school English. I am sorry for the flashback.

It remains good advice, though. Remember that the subjects of your sentence have agency—they do things, instead of things happening to them. “Heather ate the entire pizza” will beat “the entire pizza was eaten by Heather” every single time.

Install a grammar plug-in like Grammarly.
The jig is up. If you’re reading this, you’re an adult professional, or at least a college student. Unless you’re willing to dedicate the time and energy to learn, your grammar skills probably are what they are.

If you don’t have the interest or time to read The Elements of Style cover to cover, download a plug-in like Grammarly to save you from embarrassing mistakes. And for the love of god, read anything you wrote on your iPhone twice before sending.

Map before you draft.
Back to high school English for a second. Do you remember those formal outlines you had to draft before writing your (riveting, I’m sure) five-paragraph essay? Sketching out the general shape of your piece, as well as major points you want to cover, will help keep your writing organized and interesting. And write your intro last.

Syntax matters. Vary your sentence length and structure…
If you read that and thought, “Well, Hemingway never did that,” please feel free to call me so we can argue about that for an hour. My central thesis would be: “Oh, are you Hemingway?” but I’m happy to expand on that for you.

Snark aside, good syntax is the skeleton of any good piece of writing. Vary your sentence length to keep your reader engaged, or I guarantee you will lose them. Have you ever finished a paragraph and had to read it again because you didn’t absorb it? Probably bad syntax.

… and punctuation.
My eighth grade Language Arts teacher thought mastering a semicolon was the key to good writing; Kurt Vonnegut, however, hated them. (See what I did there?)

It is true, however, that punctuation is a tool to control flow and keep your reader engaged. Em dashes, colons and ellipses (and yes, semicolons) are all vehicles you can use to change the way your sentence is read.

One note: go easy on the exclamation points. We overuse them in American English, since we use them to communicate excitement and friendliness. We’re excited and friendly people.

Avoid jargon.
You know what’s great about working at a PR agency like Fire Bee? We’re the bridge between our clients and… well, everyone else. We know a little more than the lay person would, but you’re still going to have to explain how the sausage gets made to us if you want us to communicate effectively. And that is a beautiful thing.

Why? Because we take a complicated, inside-baseball message and turn it into something anyone can understand. That’s why a lot of clients with in-house PR folks still want to work with us—we’re outside your echo chamber, and we’re far enough removed from your brand that we can see it clearly. That can be a gift when you’re trying to engineer change.

In short: remember your audience. Avoid jargon.

Signpost, signpost, signpost.
I didn’t learn this term until grad school, but it’s something every journalist knows. “Signposting” works like this: tell your reader what they’re about to read, then tell them, then tell them what you just told them. It may all seem immediately clear to you on the first read, but most people need to hear a point a few times to take it in.

It looks like this once writ large:

Intro: “Here are a few tips for improving your writing.”
Body: “These writing tips are A, B and C.”
Conclusion: “Incorporating tips A, B and C into your writing will make a big difference.”

Your first draft is probably garbage. Sorry.
Grab your red pen and keep going.

All of these rules are made to be broken.
It seems counterintuitive, I know, but sometimes you have to go with your gut.

A gifted guitarist once told me this about music theory: “It’s useful to know what you’re supposed to do next, even if you don’t want to.” Think of the established rules for good writing the same way.

For example, I use a lot of incomplete sentences when I’m writing conversationally. Skim back over this article… you’ll see them. Every one was deliberate.

“Rules” are really just guidelines… you do you. But at least know why you’re doing it.


Interested in learning more about Fire Bee’s content offerings? Want to engage in a long and circular disagreement about the importance of active voice? Either way, reach out today. We’d love to hear from you.

By | 2018-01-05T02:33:18+00:00 December 13th, 2017|0 Comments

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