How to write

Surprise and delight: ten tips for writers

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Woman holding a lit lightbulbThere's a great post on Creating Passionate Users about User delight and the guy from the train phenomenon. My old french teacher, who was also a poet, used to come out with things like: "and now Matthew will give us his translation of this paragraph with acrobats and high kicking." I don't know where he got it from but the fireworks of his everyday speech in the classroom are still with me 20 years later.

Anyhow here are my top tips for writers to create the same kind of surprise and delight:

  1. Go out of context. Use a phrase that doesn't belong. I like the legal text when you install Google Desktop: "Please read this carefully. It's not the usual yada yada."
  2. Understate. "It is never very difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine." [P. G. Wodehouse]
  3. Quote well, but briefly. In business writing, an honest, human quote can be very effective. PR people make this difficult. Has anyone seen a genuinely good quote (as opposed to a Frankenquote) in a press release?
  4. Killer ledes. Open with a sentence that grips the reader. P.J.O'Rourke is the master of this: "Skiing consists of wearing $3,000 worth of clothes and equipment and driving 200 miles in the snow in order to stand around at a bar and drink."
  5. Write 50 alternatives. My guru Donald Murray (see my review of Writing to Deadline) suggests drafting 50 alternative ledes.
  6. Use fewer words. If the reader thinks she has to wade through twenty pages and you give an excellent one page summary, think how happy she'll be.
  7. Get someone else to read it first. What may make perfect sense to you might be a mystery to normal people. So get a normal person's take on it.
  8. Be yourself. Although teachers and editors try to stamp out all traces of your personality from your writing, actually readers want to know you. Provide a human context by including yourself in your work.
  9. Read good writing. I recommend to my business clients that they read good non-fiction prose. This is because it has similar objectives to most corporate writing: to persuade and inform. I suggest The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, The Economist. Anyone got any other recommendations?
  10. Involve the reader. Does anyone have any other tips or suggestions?

better business writing

Matthew Stibbe

Matthew is founder and CEO of Articulate Marketing.