How to punch up your writing

If you write or edit for a living, it’s likely you’ve been asked to make something more “punchy.” In the realm of thought leadership, many executives are (rightfully) tiring of dense, long articles full of “consultant-ese”—pieces that are often hard to read, especially for a layperson, and that obscure the authors’ insights. They want to read concise content with both perspective and personality. Hear! Hear!

But how to do this? Below are some tips—a mix of things that could be tackled at copy edit and things that should be considered much earlier in the writing process.

Resist stating the obvious

One surefire path to stodgy content is to bog it down with well-known information or details covered by the general press. As much as you can, stick to what’s new for your readers and get to this information as soon as possible.

Be empathetic

If you’re writing a piece on health care, talk about “patients,” not “consumers.” If you’re writing about retail operations, they still don’t need to be consumers; they can just be people. If possible, include real examples of people or businesses. Consider what a real-life person (not an abstract audience member) reading your piece might think or feel, and weave that in. In general, make the piece feel like it was written by humans, for humans.

Focus the piece

So often content feels like it lacks punch because it’s simply trying to do too much. It drags on and attempts to be comprehensive. A piece that deeply explores a few provocative ideas and avoids long forays into tangential subjects will feel much more approachable and, yes, punchy.

Use active voice

Active sentences are almost always the best choice. Passive voice dilutes the message and weighs down the copy, making it unclear who you’re talking about and rendering the reading experience less enjoyable. It also can be used to shirk responsibility, as in the first example below. If you’re tempted to use passive voice to intentionally avoid giving someone or something agency, consider if the point should be in there at all.

Examples: To sustainably feed the planet in the coming decades, diets must change now. –> To sustainably feed the planet in the coming decades, people must change their diets now.

For some retailers, traditional business models cannot be sustained in the new environment. –> Some retailers will not be able to sustain traditional business models in the new environment.

Write shorter, and more varied, sentences

Authors often have a tendency to write long, winding sentences that, again, obscure the point and, often, bury the critical information. Short sentences and varied constructions give your reader a break, change up the pace and cadence, and can help you emphasize a point. The instructor at a writing workshop I attended a few years ago suggested no sentence should be longer than 26 words. I don’t always adhere to this guideline, but I always consider it. If a sentence is much longer than that, there should be a reason for it, such as the thought truly can’t be broken up or it includes a list. And, most importantly, it should be easy to follow.

Punctuation can also be a big help in keeping a piece fresh. Em dashes, in particular, can break sentences up in new ways or connect related thoughts without adding to your word count.

Convert long nouns into verbs

I’m not sure why this became a thing, but thought leaders love nouns. Unfortunately, much like passive voice, unnecessary nouns make content hard to get through—usually at the expense of a verb that would make it clear what readers are supposed to do. Look for opportunities to flip the wording and turn some nouns into verbs.

Example: Tips for value maximization –> Tips to maximize value

Avoid overused words and phrases

Banish jargon, clichés, and the words and phrases that are used so often that they’ve lost their meaning. Not only do they make an article sound less fresh but they can also muddy the meaning—two things that are definitely not punchy. 

Examples: pain points, bold, disrupt(ion), transformation, key considerations/features/measures/steps/actions/imperatives/levers, leverage, unlock, drive, deliver, mind-set shift, holistic framework, truly innovative solutions, blue sky actionable content deliverables

To replace such words, try thinking about what you really mean, not just how you see others write about the subject. And don’t be afraid to write it out how you’d talk about it. Stuffiness does not equal smartness. After all, even bright people have personalities. Let’s bring some of that personality back into our writing.

Annie Mullowney

As a senior editor, Annie focuses primarily on developmental editing and drafting, helping clients sharpen their stories and tell them in a compelling way.

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