Remember that writing is like talking, says Elen Lewis, because if you’re not writing for someone else, then why will they want to read it?
I was lucky enough to sit next to Philip Pullman, one of my favourite novelists two years ago at dinner in Merton College, Oxford. Philip wrote His Dark Materials trilogy, Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, widely regarded as the thinking reader’s Harry Potter. These books zing with magic and storytelling and they’re also beautifully written.
Philip was talking about the creative breakthrough he had while first writing Northern Lights. His young heroine, Lyra was prowling around an Oxford college but he couldn’t seem to the move the story on. Then he realized it was because she needed a companion, she needed someone to speak to.
Philip writes from a garden shed and he was outside, willing inspiration when the idea of the daemons came to him in a flash: these animal spirits change shape when you are young and settle into a constant form as an adult. They are the single most brilliant idea of the books.
The first four words of ‘His Dark Materials’, “Lyra and her daemon…”, are the four most important in the trilogy. Everything follows from that. The rest fell into place. And it’s a lesson that Philip has never forgotten. His next book after that was called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The splitting is the thing.
So how can you inject a sense of dialogue and conversation into your business writing? Here are five things you can do.
- Crime writer PD James said, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’
- Think carefully about how you want your reader to feel. Use short sentences to increase the pace, think about the level of detail to include.
- Write in the active voice rather than the passive.
- Use questions instead of sub-headings to split up longer text.
- Pretend you’re writing to someone you know well. With your customers and clients you shouldn’t have to pretend too hard.
Elen Lewis runs business writing workshops at The Business Writing Academy. Elen.firstname.lastname@example.org