Everyone has different skills. I can keep very basic accounts, but I’ll need to hire an accountant if things ever start getting complicated. In the same way, I can offer my services to write copy, but in practice everyone needs to get things down in writing themselves at times.
Very often, people who can explain things eloquently when they’re speaking come over as stilted or awkward when they try to write it down. It takes a lot of practice to be natural and spontaneous in writing, but there are some very simple things you can do to improve the effect.
As with speaking, if you write in long, convoluted sentences, it’ll be harder for the reader to follow your meaning, and they may have switched off before they get to the end. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use longer sentences. In fact, the best writing varies sentence length, using longer ones to set up the idea and shorter ones to administer the punch.
That only works, though, if you know how to construct a long sentence, allowing the reader to follow it through naturally. The rule of thumb is that, if you’re going to err, err on the side of shortness.
Write as you speak
Well, not exactly as you speak. Unless we’ve rehearsed carefully, our speech includes all kinds of hesitations, ers, ums and incomplete sentences that don’t belong in writing. But the main reason writing comes over as stilted is that many people assume there’s a whole different set of rules.
Contractions, for example. By contractions, I mean things like don’t for do not, it’s for it is etc. They’ve been part of English for a long time (Shakespeare used them a lot) and, unless you’re writing an academic paper, there’s no reason to avoid them. Or unless you happen to be Data from Star Trek.
If you’ve written something important, read it aloud. Or, better still, get someone else to read it to you, so you can hear whether it sounds natural. If it doesn’t, chances are it won’t read as natural, either.
There are very precise rules about punctuation, and a single missed or misplaced comma can change the meaning of a sentence. Let’s eat, Grandma is an invitation to Grandma. Let’s eat Grandma is an invitation to Hannibal Lector.
The single most common punctuation error is probably the run-on sentence: for instance, I got up in the morning, my wife left for work. Both parts are “main clauses” (complete statements that could stand alone, whether or not you want to add more information) and they can’t be separated only by a comma. There various ways of doing it, but the easiest methods of making it correct would be either I got up in the morning. My wife left for work. or I got up in the morning, and my wife left for work.
That example isn’t particularly confusing, but confusion grows with the length of the sentences spliced together. The run-on sentence is one of the most common reasons for the long, rambling sentences mentioned above.
Don’t use a word if you don’t know its meaning
Seems obvious? It should do, but it’s actually very common for people to use a word or a phrase in completely the wrong sense, often because they genuinely believe that is what it means.
A good example is the confusion between e.g. (for example) and i.e. (that is). The Seven Dwarfs, e.g. Grumpy and Sneezy. The four Beatles, i.e. John, Paul, George and Ringo. It’s very easy: e.g. is an egsample; i.e. Is Everything.
Just a few little points like this will make your writing much more fluid and natural. Or, better still, you could always hire a copywriter.