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What the grandmasters of writing can teach us about creating content

One thing that we know for sure about the digital content revolution—grabbing and holding people’s attention has never been harder. If they’re reading something that becomes boring, they know that a dancing chimp playing the kazoo with its armpit is only a few clicks away. This makes spare, elegantly simple, and concise writing even more important.

Of course, the grandmasters of writing have always recognized the importance of getting to the point and being clear. One of the greatest examples of this principle was the amazing genre novelist Elmore Leonard, perhaps the greatest master of dialogue in the second half of the twentieth century, who passed away in 2013. (He wrote the original books from which the movie “Get Shorty” and the TV series “Justified” were taken.) He was also one of the most quotable writers of his generation, and he famously said of his writing style, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Stop a moment and think about what he said—and he wasn’t boasting. He delivered. He just got the story told. No one skipped a boring page of exposition. He didn’t write a boring page of exposition. Ever. When we’re writing or reviewing an article, press release, or blog post for publication, we can keep Mr. Leonard’s philosophy in mind. For example, in a case history or job story you may be tempted to include a puffed-up paragraph of corporate superlatives that one of your executives is pushing hard—but will the reader (your potential customer, remember) care? Or will he skip it? And if he skips that paragraph, he may just skip the next few and miss key information that he really needs to know.

Another one of my writing idols is Kurt Vonnegut. But his writing, while beautiful, was also spare and straightforward, even when his subject matter was complex, confusing, and downright mind-blowing. His advice to aspiring writers? “No matter how wonderful a sentence is, if it doesn’t add new and useful information, it should be removed.” I know that I have followed his advice even when it caused me physical pain, though I also admit I don’t follow it 100% of the time. But especially when we are editing our work or someone else’s, Vonnegut’s words can act as a touchstone for each precious sentence.

All that attention to simplicity and clarity, however, doesn’t mean that writing for our clients is just a matter of slapping down the most basic couple of nouns and a verb that we can. It is hard to write simply, but one of America’s most beloved writers, Mark Twain, explained why it is so important when he said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Yes, it’s hard because each word stands out; it isn’t hidden behind a huge shrubbery of unimportant and unnecessary words. Therefore, as Twain reminds us, it must be the right word. Make sure that you don’t let the wrong word get out the door—while you may know what you mean, that doesn’t help if no one else does.

(Commercial interlude: If you don’t have the budget to pay us to write everything for you, keep in mind that editing is just another service we offer. For example, if you write your own press releases, but don’t have an editor in-house, you can send them over to us for editing and/or proofreading. Just give me a call and I can set something up for you.)

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