Write Like a Normal Person

Growing up, I read a lot of British victorian novels, and so I thought every decent sentence had at least two semicolons. Then in high school I took a summer English class at my local college, I wrote a paper that analyzed the meaning of the plant life in the novel Rebecca.* My professor, the delightful Jane Ashworth, pulled her glasses off her nose, stared at me, and said, “Why don’t you just write like a normal person.”

The next paper I wrote was about Disney heroines, and why people like them even though they are completely unrealistic. I wrote it pretty much the way I would talk, with straightforward sentences, basic vocabulary, and a solid pruning of adjectives. I got an A, and I never looked back.

There are times when you don’t want to write like a normal person – when you’re obfuscating meaning, when you’re writing something emotionally awkward, when you’re transmitting a gift to the Sultan of Brunei on behalf of the Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms. But in general, you shouldn’t put on your business-speak hat, or your academic hat, or your Thomas Hardy hat. Don’t use “utilize” when “use” will do. Don’t try to sound smart. If you want to get meaning across, just say what you have to say, and say it like a normal person. Your readers will thank you.

* I am not kidding. These are the kinds of things I did for fun.


Make Your Last Words Count

No, I’m not talking about your dying words, I’m talking about the last words in a sentence, paragraph, or piece of writing. Your last (and first) words carry the most weight, but they so often trail off into “etc.,” “and so on,” or “for customers.” Here’s an example from a randomly chosen digital ad company’s About page:

It’s the one thing that every advertiser, publisher, and agency in our industry is seeking: Audiences. They want to know where they are. How they think. What they buy. And most of all, how to reach them.

Read it aloud to yourself, and you’ll hear that “them” is pretty anticlimactic ending.

To demonstrate this further, I looked at the most popular Bible verse on BibleGateway.com:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

“Life” is a pretty powerful word to linger there at the end. The next four most popular verses end in: Future, Purpose, Strength, and Earth — all great, emphatic words. By contrast, here’s the last sentence of the popular Book of Jonah:

And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

That’s it. That’s how that exciting sentence, and the whole exciting book, ends—with “also much cattle.” No wonder you don’t hear that Bible quote very often.

Using great last words is one of the easiest and most powerful ways to improve your writing. It’s most important in marketing-type materials, but it will help you seem more eloquent and competent in your business writing too.