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Write better copy faster, breeze through the approval process and go home early

By Ann Wylie

Originally Posted

Just yesterday, I interviewed three financial experts, wrote a 1250-word cover story from scratch and went home at 5 p.m. I'll bet the article will come back from the editing and approval process with a couple of minor tweaks, if that. Now, I'm not just cranking stuff out at the expense of quality. My writing and publications have earned more than 40 awards for excellence. That includes two IABC Gold Quills -- the Pulitzer Prizes of business communications. So how do I write fast while still writing well enough to win international awards? I know that ...

The secret to writing better
is also the secret to writing easier and faster.

More about that secret in a minute. But first -- let's face it -- the problem with writing these days is time. You're doing the work of your colleague who was laid off last month and your own work. You don't have the resources to hire more people or get freelance help. And still, you're being pressured to produce more, more, more. The result? Not only do you exhaust yourself getting the job done, but you're never really happy with the results. You probably have to battle through the approval process with people who don't understand what you're doing -- or how you do it. And worse: After all this effort, you may be still sending out copy that isn't as effective as it should be. If you manage writers, you may be multiplying your hours in the office by fixing copy that should have been better in the first place. And, despite your hard work, the finished product still might not be all that great. So how can you and your team members write better copy faster?

The key to writing copy that gets read, finishing your work on time and going home early isn't talent.
Now, don't tell my clients this, but the truth is, as a writer, I'm not all that talented. Put 10 professional writers in a room, and five of them will have more natural writing ability than me. Still, organizations like Readers Digest, the Mayo Clinic, H&R Block, and Sprint call on me to handle their special print and online writing projects. Companies like Nokia, AOL, and AT&T pay me thousands of dollars to share my writing secrets with their professionals. Clients from as far away as Helsinki, Amsterdam, Paris, and Brussels fly me to their organizations to hear what I have to say. Why? To become successful, I've had to do something that 97 percent of writers haven't done. In order to build my international writing and training business, I've had to assemble dozens and dozens and dozens of tricks for improving my writing. I have tricks for finding the story my readers want to read. Tricks for organizing my copy. Tricks for making my copy a pleasure to read. Tricks for writing copy that's easy to understand. Tricks for writing leads that draw readers into the story. Tricks for getting skimmers and scanners to absorb my material. And more. And the great thing about those tricks -- a side benefit I couldn’t have predicted when I was first struggling to collect them -- is:

These tricks not only make copy better, they also make writing faster and easier.
Here are three tricks that will help make your copy better, easier and faster:

  1. Lead with the most important W's. When you're writing a news story for your publication or Web site, forget trying to cram the fact pack -- who, what, when, where, why and how -- into the first paragraph or two. Instead, answer the reader's two most burning questions:

    • What happened?

    • Why should I care?

    That approach is more elegant and fresh than the Mark Twain-era fact pack. It engages the reader and puts the most important information at the top. But more important, it's an easy, two-sentence formula for making one of your most difficult story decisions: How do I start?

  2. Summarize the story. What's your point? To make sure readers get your key point without having to dig for it, summarize your main idea in one sentence. Depending on the type of story you're writing, that summary sentence can serve as the basis for your:

    • Headline and lead in a news story

    • Deck and nut paragraph in a feature story

    • Summary blurb for a story that will appear online

    • Table of contents or index blurbs for all of the above

  3. Pass the palm test. On line, readers don’t read; they scan. So break up your on-line copy to help readers glide across the page and make your copy more accessible. The trick? Pass the palm test. Hold your hand over the screen. No chunk of text should go unbroken for longer than and wider than the palm of your hand. In print, the test is different. But that's a trick for another time.

Tricks, tricks and more tricks The best writers use simple tricks, techniques, and formulas like these to make their writing better, easier and faster. The real pros -- the masters of the craft -- spend their entire careers accumulating more tricks. In future columns, I'll share more of these with you. Many more.

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