"Bad Language"

A column about writing in business

Surprise and Delight: Ten Tips for Writers

There'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 (definition). 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?

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Columnist Matthew Stibbe is Writer-in-chief for Articulate Marketing, a specialist copywriting agency. His clients include Microsoft, the British Government and leading magazines like Wired and Popular Science. Matthew also writes a blog called Bad Language. Click here to read more articles by Matthew Stibbe.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 15th 2007, 3:13 PM
Comment by: Amy A.
Addition to #9: Also read travel essays - not 'tourist' essays that try to sell, but ones written by people who want to tell you about their experience. Usually these can be found in books, not newspapers. Do not read the business section of newspapers. Their approach is too sensational.
Saturday March 17th 2007, 6:05 AM
Comment by: Paula T.
Dare to be self-deprecating in an oddball manner. Gerald Durrel, who claims to have written purely to raise money for 'his animals' and not for literary acclaim, has a deceptively simple but highly endearing and funny style.
Sunday April 1st 2007, 3:11 AM
Comment by: MARY M.
I recently subscribed to this website so am not that familiar with the lingo. The word "lede", zhich I don't know, is used in this article so I looked it up in the visual thesaurus but it is not there.
Tuesday April 3rd 2007, 7:53 PM
Comment by: Gregory G.
A good tip for writingsuucintly is to read jacket copy on several books. It is amazing how brief a jacket copy can give both a sumamry and a tease for a 450 page novel.
Saturday April 21st 2007, 2:04 PM
Comment by: Jeanette M.
Addition to #9: Whenever The New Yorker comes up, I have to put my two cents in for Harper's.
Thursday April 26th 2007, 6:17 PM
Comment by: Robbin A.
Do not be afraid to put your words in print. Fear can hold back a great writer.
Friday May 25th 2007, 7:04 AM
Comment by: MARK W.
Gerald Durell, yes, lovely. But what about his brother Lawrence? I wonder what his top ten tips for good writing might have been : 1 - Why use a single sentence to say something, when a thousand will say it almost half as well?, 2- always put the punchline in ancient Greek, Arabic,Persian,Portuguese, Russian or French! Ah, the conceits and deceits of the multilingual author.

Anyone care to come up with another 8 tips from Lawrence?

In fact, I do enjoy reading Lawrence Durrell - it is just a pity that da Vinci never whispered in his ear " Lawrence, dear fellow,...simplicity is the ultimate complexity..."
Wednesday June 6th 2007, 12:59 PM
Comment by: gmarie808 (HI)
Enlightening tips and comments! Stirs up the writer in me...

Aloha & Mahalo.

Mary MacGillivray- about your comment regarding the word "ledes", I believe you have to adjust your settings to enable a French lookup of the word. I took it to mean the leading sentence or the strong beginning of a sentence. Hope that helped. Take care all.
Wednesday May 21st 2008, 5:17 AM
Comment by: Cory W.
Thanks for the great information. Your blogs are quite helpful to a beginning writer like myself. It would be nice to see a link to a printer-friendly file of the article on each post...kinda of a pain having to cut and paste all your lovely gems to a word file so I can print them out for posterity.

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