Style matters – but not as much as substance

A writing style guide isn’t just about creating consistency; it also helps to reinforce a brand. (Image by Relea Leonard from Pixabay.)

It was the perfect silly season story: a prominent arch-Brexiter Westminster MP requiring his staff to use imperial measurements and to address non-titled men as Esq. British newspapers and the Twittersphere had a field day.

Whether or not you’re a fan of the politician in question, you have to take your (top) hat off to him. Because a writing style guide isn’t just about creating consistency; it also helps to reinforce a brand. And if your carefully-constructed public persona is old-fashioned, then your writing style should be old-fashioned too.

“Whatever your own company’s brand, its style guide is designed to project a certain image”

Whatever your own company’s brand, its style guide (if there is one) is designed to project a certain image. Therefore, you should follow it when writing at work, even if you wouldn’t choose to adopt some or all of the house rules in other contexts.

If you don’t have a style guide, consider adopting a newspaper one. It will help you to write consistently and to avoid wasting time on little style decisions such as whether to hyphenate a compound word.

“If you don’t have a style guide, consider adopting a newspaper one”

The Economist’s excellent guide is a favourite among fund managers. The Guardian, too, has a comprehensive – and amusing – guide, which you can find online.

Returning to the silly season, don’t be distracted by the funny stories. It doesn’t hugely matter whether we address a letter to John Smith, Mr John Smith or John Smith Esq. Just as investors judge a fund on its strategy and performance, we should judge our politicians on their ideas and policies – not on their style guides.

Fall in love with full stops

Pen writing
In business writing, people typically do not use the full stop enough. (Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay.)

The full stop is such an important and powerful punctuation mark that it has been incorporated into spoken English. When dumping a lover, you might say, “I never want to see you again. Full stop.” That means never, ever. The spoken full stop adds emphasis.

The written full stop can do this too. On social media, splitting phrases into one-word sentences is a popular way of making a point.

“Short sentences are clear, compelling and authoritative”

If you end relationships by Tweet (and we’re told some people do), you might Tweet your ex, “I. Never. Want. To. See. You. Again.”

In business writing, people typically do not use the full stop enough. It’s almost as if they think that short sentences are unprofessional.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Short sentences are clear, compelling and authoritative.

If you are writing about a technical topic, long sentences make it harder for your readers to follow what you are saying. That’s one of the reasons why they are so popular; they provide cover for you, the writer.

In short sentences, there is nowhere to hide. You must command your material.

“A good piece of writing usually contains a mix of very short, short and longer sentences”

Of course, you don’t want all your sentences to be very short. That can feel like machine-gun fire.

But a good piece of writing usually contains a mix of very short, short and longer sentences. So, the next time you find yourself writing a string of long, rambling sentences, stop.

Then reach for one of the most powerful weapons in a writer’s toolkit. The full stop.

The power of the paragraph

Short paragraphs make it easier to refine a narrative. (Image by chloestrong from Pixabay.)

If I stop reading a blog post, below-the-line comment or book review online, the chances are it’s because the text has no paragraphs.

Using short, clear paragraphs is one of the simplest things you can do to make your writing more attractive and legible – especially if it’s likely to be read on a screen.

“Don’t be afraid to use ultra-short paragraphs”

Another benefit of using short paragraphs is that they make it easier to refine a narrative. If you stick to the rule of having one main topic in each paragraph, then it’s easy to spot when an idea’s in the wrong place (or perhaps doesn’t need to be there at all).

And don’t be afraid to use ultra-short paragraphs. They are a good way of emphasising key points in your text.

Beyond legibility and narrative clarity, paragraphs have expressive potential too – and much of that expressiveness lies in the white spaces between them.

“Physical gaps in the text give the reader mental space to absorb and reflect on the previous idea”

These physical gaps in the text give the reader mental space to absorb and reflect on the previous idea. They also allow writers to suggest things that they don’t want to write explicitly (just as a pause or total silence does in a conversation).

So whether you’re writing a quick email, a monthly report, a proposal or a press release, take care with your paragraphs. And if you are prone to using long ones, start to make friends with your return key.

Why do we write?

Unless you are writing a literary work, which is a form of artistic expression, your purpose in writing is usually to inform or persuade your audience. Often, you want to do both.

In the fund industry, certainly, informing and persuading the intended audience is the aim of almost every piece of writing that is produced. It’s good to remember this when you sit down to write.

“The purpose of writing is to inform and persuade your audience”

If you remind yourself that the purpose of writing is to inform and persuade your audience, you can avoid many common writing mistakes. The first and perhaps most lethal of these is to ignore your audience.

If you want to convince your readers, it’s obvious that you should have some idea who they are. It’s equally obvious that you should think about what interests them and that you should try to avoid confusing them or boring them to death.

“A lot of business writing is not suitable for the intended audience; sometimes, it’s not suitable for any audience”

These points are obvious, but writers often don’t address them, particularly in a business context. A lot of business writing is confusing and boring. Often, it’s not suitable for the intended audience; sometimes, it’s not suitable for any audience.

Perhaps it is encrusted in arcane jargon. Perhaps it is lifeless because all the sentences are structured in the same way. Perhaps it fails to engage the reader because it is too impersonal.

These are all problems that can be fixed. The first step on the way – and the best way to avoid these problems in the first place – is to remember why we write.

Finding your voice

Retro microphone
Writing voices are trickier to modulate than speaking voices. (Image by tookapic from Pixabay.)

Do you consciously think about your voice as you write? If not, there’s a risk that some of your texts may strike the wrong note.

Writing voices are trickier to modulate than speaking voices because the tone of a text relies only on words and grammatical structures. In writing, we can’t use facial expressions, body language or changes in volume to add nuances to our messages. Perhaps that’s why GIFs and smileys are so popular on social media. It’s not appropriate to use smileys in a fund report or press release, so what can you do instead?

“You should adapt your writing voice to suit your audience and your intention”

Think about how you talk to your granny, a puppy, old university friends, colleagues and clients. Do you use the same vocabulary, sentence structures and vocal pitch regardless of who you are speaking to? Probably not. Similarly, you should adapt your writing voice to suit your audience and your intention.

A good place to start is with your words. Experiment with using more and less formal vocabulary (chief executive officer/CEO/boss; statistics/numbers/stats, for example). Similarly, notice how using contractions such as “it’s” and “won’t” changes the tone of your text.

Experiment with your sentence structures and punctuation too. And notice how serious journalists use very short sentences, rhetorical questions and sentences beginning with “and” or “but” to emphasise key points or to signal a change in direction.

“Don’t lose the connection between your speaking and writing voices”

Most importantly, don’t lose the connection between your speaking and writing voices. Try reading your texts aloud as you write and edit them. If a sentence doesn’t sound right when it’s spoken, it probably doesn’t read well either.

A natural, conversational writing voice exudes confidence and professionalism, and so it’s well worth learning how to make the most of yours.