Having delivered so many workshops to organisations of all shapes and sizes, we know that anyone can be a writer. But, the sad fact is there’s a lot of mediocre copy out there. Boring, monotonous, complicated – even if it’s grammatically correct and full of well-chosen vocabulary.
It might be down to how we’re taught at school, or it might be because of lack of confidence, but often the problem is simply lack of variety. So we’ve decided to give our top tips to add variety to your writing.
Good writing is enjoyable to read. It’s full of the unexpected. It should excite you and make you wonder what’s coming next. Whether it’s your favourite novel or an engaging article, the best writing will have lots of variety throughout. Different sentence lengths, interesting word choices – even page layout – all add to the impact of the copy.
Short and long
One big difference between complicated, boring writing, and enjoyable, engaging copy is the length. Better writing, on average, often has shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs.
But long can be good too (sometimes). Lots of short sentences can be tedious to read. After a few in a row, they lose their impact. But if you vary the length of your words, sentences and paragraphs, you’ll keep the reader on their toes and make your copy sound far more exciting.
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
Not just text
No matter how varied your sentence length is, a big block of text always looks hard to read – especially on webpages or other formats where people tend to skim.
But for most content, a lot of that text could be replaced with something that breaks the monotony. Lots of facts and figures work well as infographics. Long descriptions can be cut down if there’s an image. Discreet sections can be broken up with subheadings.
For inspiration, think about a magazine format. National Geographic often have very long articles about quite complicated subjects. To help their readers, they often present it with lots of visuals – even if you’re an expert palaeontologist, this article about recent discoveries in the field is much easier to read thanks to its presentation.
We all need a change every now and then. If you’ve been sending the same content to your audiences for years, perhaps it’s time to shake things up a bit. Instead of an annual report, try a video presentation. Or turn a blog post into a booklet and post it to your top prospects. Now that so many people are working from home, you’ve got plenty of opportunities to try new ways to engage people that might not have worked before.
We recently worked with a technology company to write invitations for a unique online event. Instead of the usual webinar, they asked a select group of C-level executives to join a virtual wine tasting with their peers. The discussion still tied back to the product, but the unexpected format was a great idea for getting people on board.
When you’re creating a large piece of content, whether it’s a brochure or a website, variety across the whole piece is as important as variety from sentence to sentence. If the first few pages are all variations of ‘our history’, it will quickly get boring.
Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and think about what they need to know and what will be interesting to them. Then arrange your content to give people an enjoyable experience when they’re reading it.
To avoid getting bogged down in the details, you need to take a top-level view of your content. If you’re writing in Microsoft Word, switch to ‘outline view’ to see all your headings and subheads. If they make sense on their own and the order seems logical, you’re off to a good start. If you’re writing content for a website, spend lots of time on the sitemap before you even write a single word.
A style of your own
Within certain industries and certain types of writing, it’s often hard to tell one writer or one brand from another. But if you’re writing an award submission, a tender document, or an application, that can be fatal to your chances of success. Sometimes you really need to stand out.
In these cases, variety doesn’t just come from within your document, it needs to come from you taking a different approach to everyone else. In traditional corporate circles, this could be as simple as writing in the first person (‘I did this’), rather than the typical passive style that’s so common (‘it was done’).
This example from Bain & Company simply shows a well-written Insight piece. But, in an industry where waffle and business-speak dominates, decent copywriting really stands out.
In more creative industries, giving your reader variety might mean taking a very bold approach with your tone or saying something provocative.
In some cases, being different is enough in itself. Consumer products all tend to have a chatty tone of voice, but Skittles have gone way beyond that into the realm of downright weird. Nothing they say seems to make much sense, but somehow that works for a brand whose slogan is ‘taste the rainbow’:
Never overlook variety again
Consistency and unity are important. But as every artist, composer and novelist knows, variety is what grabs attention. So if your organisation’s writing seems decent enough on the surface but is still lacking a bit of oomph, try some of the techniques here to add a bit of interest. Readers will respond with more opens and clicks, longer session times, and more repeat business.