5 easy ways to improve your writing skills

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Vilfredo Pareto made several important contributions to economics.

You probably learned the Pareto Principle the easy way. Maybe you heard about the concept in the business press: “Studies show that in most companies 80 percent of revenue comes from 20 percent of clients.”

Perhaps you picked it up during a time management course: “You should spend 80 percent of your time on the 20 percent of activities that are most useful to you.”

Not me. I learned about Pareto the hard way. As a student in honors political science, I had to read the whole damn book (books, actually, as the work consists of four volumes). My professor, who was French, charming, and possessed of a slightly sadistic streak, insisted on it.

Almost 30 years later, I can barely remember that I went to a university—never mind the contents of a four-volume work by a verbose Italian economist. But I can say that a lifetime of writing has taught me how to try to beat Vilfredo Pareto’s depressing odds.

The first step, of course, is to surrender. Admit that Pareto was correct and that no matter how compelling your arguments, 80 percent of your readers will want to read no more than 20 percent of your writing—if that. The second step is to do something about it.

Here are five suggestions:

1. Have a great headline.

A headline is like a store display window. It catches the eye by sampling the merchandise. It says: “More of this great stuff will be inside.” Similarly, a good headline will draw readers further into your writing. Consider these two examples:

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The second headline gives you: A visual image (spider), a wordplay (spider/sticky), an implied question (questions are inherently interesting), and a negative thought (negatives are more eye-catching than positives.) Note that headlines aren’t just for newsletter articles. They can and should be used in letters, emails, reports, and Requests for Proposals. Check out these 7 tips for better headlines.

2. Make frequent use of bold or subheads.

Readers are like a bunch of kids at an action movie—easily bored and always waiting for the next explosion or car chase. As a writer, I can’t make things blow up, but I can and do make liberal use of graphic dynamite, a.k.a. boldface. Other visual devices that work are subheads and pull quotes (these are comments that are pulled from the text, put in larger type, and given big quotation marks around them). Don’t think of these graphic tricks as “cheating”—instead, use these techniques whenever you can.

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3. Always use captions for photos.

And I do mean always. Eye-tracking studies (research showing where your eyes look while reading) consistently demonstrate that the human eye is drawn to photographs and from there, to captions underneath. Don’t blow this opportunity with a dumb caption that simply echoes the photo. You know, “Vice-president Alison Smith smiles as she cuts ribbon to new mental health facility.” Instead, share some new information. For example: “Vice-president Alison Smith says the new facility will help the one in five Americans facing mental illness.”

4. Put your most interesting material at the beginning.

Work hard at engaging the reader from the get-go. You’ll notice in this article, for example, I began by identifying with the reader (by using the word “you”) and then launched into an anecdote about my university life. I’m not suggesting I’m endlessly fascinating—I’m actually rather dull, as my children will eagerly tell you—but I do know that most readers enjoy hearing stories about people’s lives. Think of facts as the medicine and anecdotes as the sugar that makes them palatable.

5. Use transitions.

Transitional words—such as because, as well, but, in contrast, and similarly—belong in everything you write. They help “pull” the reader through your writing, much as a rope tow pulls a skier uphill. Also, don’t ignore the power of “conceptual” transitions. These occur when you repeat a word or phrase or otherwise refer to an earlier sentence. The second paragraph of this article (“Not me”), for example, harkens back to the first paragraph (“You probably…”).

Though I give all due power to Pareto, I think his principle can be beaten. It just takes determination. 

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