Tuesday, August 24

Applying Mechanics: Five Tips For Better Writing

Writing Mechanics
Last week, I wrote a post about crafting better content, which focused on prep work that takes place before writing content. The companion piece is this post that focuses a bit more on mechanics.

After all, great stories can capture reader interest, but it takes a practiced hand to keep them. One standard practice inside many major corporations that publish printed employee newsletters or magazines is the red test. Basically, editors ask a few readers to draw a line under the last paragraph they read in a story. In most cases, the average reader makes up their mind about a piece in three paragraphs, assuming the lead sentence is strong, and skips or skims the rest.

Are there exceptions? Yes. Great stories are read from the lead sentence to the last. And the reason they are is mechanics.

5 Mechanics For Better Writing.

The mechanics of writing are much more than error-free prose or good grammar. The technical craft of writing covers a wide range of subjects. Here are five that I often look for in determining how good a writer might be.

• Provides A Well-Organized Story, From Start To Finish.
The biggest challenge most writers have today is content organization. While various mediums require the content to be organized differently, many writers fall into a cross-medium standardization that doesn't work. You can see it in transitions, with hard, jarring breaks between ideas instead of thoughts that flow from one into the next. The second most missed consideration is the lead, but that deserves its own paragraph.

• Writes Effective Leads, Laced With Facts And Accuracy.
Lead sentences or paragraphs are everything (especially for short-syndicated blog posts). I could write several posts about lead sentences alone (and have). Great leads are more than simply telling readers what the story is about, especially when other people are covering the same story. Mass media is losing sight of this; most publishers are sounding the same. The mosque at Ground Zero is a great example. Some 1,600 magazines led with a waffled opinion from the President of the U.S. I can't imagine a more boring approach to the story. I wonder what some extremists might think.

• Covers The Subject Thoroughly, With An Identifiable Action.
Unless you have specific space constraints, there is no perfect formula for the structure of a blog post or ad copy. (Outdoor is a bit different.) Writers need to provide enough coverage of the subject that it makes sense to the person reading it. The rule of thumb is to answer more questions than you raise, without asking the reader to do their own research. Writing a blog post is a bit different in that writers can cheat. You can sum up a situation in a line and link to another article that provides a back story. In wrapping up a story, always consider a call to action of sorts, even if it only sums up what you hoped they got out of it.

• Looks For New And Interesting Ways To Tell A Story.
As someone who follows several hundred blogs, I can safely say formulaic posts have become readily abused. When every post consists of two lead-in paragraphs, five or ten breakout bullets, and one concluding thought, the brain gets bored. Sure, that approach might be a great search engine magnet online, but it kills subscriptions over time. Mix up the format now and again. Interesting stories tend to reveal whatever structure might work best, assuming the writer is taking the time to think the story through.

• Self-Edits Consistently, Working Toward Crisper Copy.
Time is always a challenge for me on this blog. I often write the posts first thing out of the box in the morning (even if I've been thinking them about for days or weeks). The downside to this approach is I don't always have time to do what I might do with commercial copy or on assignment. What's that? Rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. In my classes, I often tell students that there are very few great writers; most of us are great rewriters, reworking the copy as long as we can against the pressure of a deadline. If you never rewrite copy, chances are that your readers already know it.

These are among my top five mechanical considerations when I screen writers. It doesn't even matter what they are going to write. But more than that, I try to apply it to my own writing as well. Sometimes looking at a quick list like this can remind us why people bother to read the content. Case in point, while writing this post, I couldn't help but to think that last story I approved could have had a better lead. Thank goodness social media tends to be forgiving. What ought to have been the lead became the tease line across networks.
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