Flow Communications

Is writing dead? In some ways, it would seem so. 

You can send voice messages instead of writing WhatsApp messages, and research shows, repeatedly, that video is more compelling than written social media messages. And then there’s artificial intelligence’s (AI) ever-growing ability to write.

Take just one study, by software company Synthesia, which claims that 91.8% of internet users worldwide watch digital videos, on average, 19 hours a week, and that social media videos generate 1 200% more shares than photos and text content combined.

Perhaps it is time to pack up the pencils?

Well, not so fast, I say. If you think about it, you probably find yourself writing several times a day, even if it is just a quick work email or to communicate via one of the many team communication platforms, like Google Chat or Slack. 

Few of us, though, have to guard our craft against AI’s encroachment like members of the Writers Guild of America did. In September 2023 the guild won a precedent-setting settlement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The agreement requires studios and production companies to disclose to writers if any material given to them has been generated by AI partially or in full, according to the Associated Press. Also, AI cannot be a credited writer; AI cannot write or rewrite “literary material”; and AI-generated writing cannot be source material.

That’s them. What about those of us who are just writing to communicate with others, inspire action and express our feelings? What are the best ways of doing this, even if all we are writing is work emails?

The nuts and bolts of good writing

The most important characteristic of good writing is to be clearly understood. It doesn’t matter how many clever-sounding words we use, or how well we can twiddle with sentence structure, if the meaning is obscure, we have lost.

However, once we’ve mastered the art of communicating clearly, we can add elements that make what we write more compelling. The more beauty, feeling and fun we put into our writing, the more we will inspire others to take the actions we want – or need – them to take.

Perhaps writing will go the way of saddle-making, becoming a rare art pursued by a few fine craftspeople. Who knows? 

Still, writing is believed to have a number of benefits, even when we write for our eyes only. 

Journalling is strongly believed to bring many mental health benefits. It is said to reduce stress and anxiety, boost self-confidence and help you work through problems to gain perspective on challenges in your life. Apparently, it even improves information retention.

How to get started

When you set out to write something, think about what it is you want from writing that piece. That is your intention. Also, think about who you are writing for. That’s your audience.

Try to have as much empathy for your audience as you can. Understand their values, concerns and what makes them happy. Empathy can really, really boost your writing and your relationship with your audience. Do it well, and you will invoke an emotional response by appealing to their joys and concerns. 

When you have to write something important or longer than usual, it helps to jot down all the things you need and want to say and then organise the points into a narrative – the flow of your piece.

Especially in business writing, it is often easy to default to long explanations of context before getting to the crux – what you want the person you are writing to, to do – especially when they are higher up in the hierarchy than you. This is a mistake.

Get to the point quickly. Start with what you want the person to do (or feel) and work backwards from there. Context can always come after. Always. 

A great ending is also essential, whether you are writing a business email or an essay on what it is like to be a new parent. A good way to end off is to circle back to your introduction. In a business email, repeat (in a nice way) what it is you want the person to do.

And now, the cool stuff

There are a number of ways you can add finesse to your writing, taking a clear and concise piece and adding trills that make it zing.

To do that, read over what you have written. Make sure that you have put people into the majority of your sentences. People like to read about people. 

Importantly, default to active voice, where the person or other actor in the sentence comes first. Active voice improves clarity and is less wordy. “I’m cooking supper” vs “Supper is being cooked by mom.”

That’s not to say that passive voice doesn’t have its place. It does. It can be used to avoid responsibility for something that happened, which can be useful, especially when the person or entity responsible is not known. It can also be used alongside active voice to add variety to a paragraph or to a longer piece of writing by changing the way sentences are written.

Always choose simple words first and then use colourful ones to enhance your meaning. It is no use using long words that few people know when short ones that are commonly used are available.

Another way to add zest to your writing is to play with sentence length. Follow a long sentence with a short one. Also, play with sentence structure. All these tricks will add joy to the task of reading your piece.

You can also use “special effects” such as alliteration (Claire, close your cluttered closet) and assonance (the repetition of vowel sounds in words that are close to each other) in a sentence or phrase.

And then, the ninja writer’s checklist

  1. Jot down everything you want to say and rank your points
  2. Decide on the order of your piece
  3. Think about your voice (active vs passive)
  4. Start with a compelling intro (intention + tone + pace)
  5. Think about sentence construction
  6. Choose words carefully
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