It takes discipline for writers and editors to constantly tailor their prose to the reader’s needs. It’s far too easy to slip into a style they enjoy writing, rather than the language their audience wants to consume. It’s particularly tough for those of us who favour flamboyant prose. Fear not, there’s hope for even the staunchest guardians of grandiloquence.
Being an editor, I enjoy language. No surprise there then. But what has often astonished me is just how difficult it can be to suppress my love of obscure and interesting words to do my job properly.
We all know that verbosity is the curse of the young writer – straining to shoehorn their word du jour into the latest piece of copy, whatever the subject matter. In retrospect, my personal nadir occurred years ago when I tried to sneak a relatively obscure French phrase into my work. I don’t speak French, but I’d recently learned what it meant and thought it sounded incredibly clever.
The phrase in question was l’esprit de l’escalier. Translated literally as ‘staircase wit’, it refers to the galling experience of realising what you should have said in an argument as you storm off up the stairs. Oddly enough, my editor at the time didn’t feel it was appropriate in a trade magazine for the office supplies industry – the philistine!
The other thing about writers is that many of us secretly, or otherwise, rather like the sound of our own voices. Often being socially awkward sorts, this leaves writing as our sole source of indulgence – I’m on the fourth paragraph and I still haven’t got to the point! In my defence, I felt the blog format allowed me a certain licence to witter.
So, how can those of us who like to luxuriate in language ensure that we switch off the flouncy function in our frontal lobes and do a great job for our clients? Trust me, it can be done.
The strategy team at Great Minds is, even if I do say so myself, pretty amazing. The extensive research they do on clients and their industries informs everything we do. One of the key elements of the strategy phase is creating a small group of audience personas, to whom we can tailor our work. These conceptual people have names, jobs, concerns and aspirations.
By the time we’ve finished fleshing out these personas, I feel I know them well enough to buy each one a passably personal present, when their non-existent birthdays roll around. It’s that level of detail that makes it effortless to write content in the language they want to consume, rather than words I enjoy typing. Johnathan in accounts is unlikely to refer to the over-zealous ombudsman as his bête noir, so nor should I. Once I know these people intimately, in theory at least, it’s much easier to communicate with them properly.
Fill your inbox
As the renowned philosopher Nas once mused: no idea is original. Don’t worry if you missed it, it was on one of the awful albums that isn’t Illmatic. And he’s right. There are publications that have been talking to your audience since long before you realised that writing ‘l’esprit de l’escalier’ isn’t clever. Sign up to their newsletters and study them regularly. What terminology do they use and how do they use it? Are they generally full of lengthy, in-depth features or bullet-point-laden, practical pieces. Use this knowledge to inform your approach.
Just to be clear, I’m not advocating plagiarism. Study the style not the content.
If all else fails
If you still can’t connect with your personas and you’re struggling to nudge your linguistic pomposity below Jacob Rees-Mogg levels, there is a drastic but effective remedy. I reluctantly introduce to the conversation my old nemesis, the Flesch-Kincaid score. I mention this with the same relish as Harry Potter recommending Voldemort as a remedy for overcrowding at Hogwarts.
The aforementioned score rewards monosyllabic words and stilted sentences. In the opinion of some editors, it values bland writing. It does, however, force you to discard with florid language and make your point – I daren’t find out what score this blog would receive. Your score can be found at the end of a spelling and grammar check in Word, and it’s easy enough to boost it with some trial and error. It’s particularly useful if you want to connect with a technical, B2B audience. Aim for a score of around 50 – trust me, it’ll test you.
So there it is, a guide to not writing like your inner child – selfish and desperate for attention. It’s a long road to redemption, but I know you can make it. If in doubt, lean on your strategy team, it’s the only thing that’s saved me from myself.