Most of the professionals we help get published are experts in their fields. But those fields rarely include writing, which is why we’ve written so many articles about how those experts can produce better business writing, from structuring an article to purging it of superlatives. We hope we’ve helped some elevate their writing to the level of a respectable business journal.
But having a good structure, with sturdy, declarative sentences, goes only so far. To make it memorable, an article should sing.
What do we mean by prose that sings? We mean writing that grabs readers and leaves a lasting impression because it’s rhythmic, dynamic, and euphonic. You can achieve that with these techniques:
1. Talk about things, not theories.
The poet William Carlos Williams once wrote, “No ideas but in things.” That is, meaning is best conveyed through concrete images rather than vague, abstract assertions. In journalism school and creative writing classes, this is famously phrased as “show, don’t tell.” For example, the statement “Apparel revenue has been down 30 percent since the second quarter” is more striking than “Retail sales have been disappointing” because it cites a concrete fact rather than a squishy observation.
Showing rather than telling can also result in truly unforgettable images. For example, we recently edited a book in which the author described how a financial advisor he knew sold everything and moved his assets into cash and gold during the 2008 financial crisis, preparing for the end of the world as he knew it, only to miss the recovery because he was out of the market. Our editor rounded out the story with, “I imagine Tom, sitting in a storm cellar somewhere in New Jersey, scowling and eating peaches from a can, shotgun across his lap.”
One of the book’s reviewers told the author it was his favorite line. That’s no surprise. The vivid description of a paranoid prepper is more likely to stick in a reader’s mind than an explanation that exiting your position during a market downturn will prevent you from profiting from the inevitable upturn.
2. Use precise, detailed language.
Many business experts use a lot of jargon and catchphrases when they write – words like siloed, driver, and impact that are used metaphorically and without much thought as to what they originally meant. For example, “Communications teams would reshape their role, delivering greater impact for patients.” But using more precise words or phrases such as benefits, outcomes, cost reduction, profits, revenue, or market share generates a stronger impression because it specifies the kind of impact.
Another reason using precise language makes copy sing is that it enables writers to say more with fewer, more evocative words. For instance, scalding is stronger than very hot, convertible more exact than car, and plunged more powerful than fell.
Adding details can also make sentences more vivid. Instead of “a German company employed this approach,” try “A Dusseldorf-based aviation startup used this approach to counter lagging sales.” And use more active verbs: “The initial focus should be on integrating available data sources” might become “To start, leaders can identify relevant data sources and connect them to their project platforms.”
3. Pitch high against low.
One of the funniest writers in the English language was P.G. Wodehouse. In his Wooster and Jeeves sagas, Wodehouse returns time and again to the high-low gag. That means beginning a line in an erudite style and finishing on a colloquial note. For example, as Wodehouse wrote in The Code of the Woosters, “I don’t suppose she would recognize a deep, beautiful thought if you handed it to her on a skewer with tartare sauce.”
This twist can be powerful in business writing. In an interview we recently edited, a senior executive, talking about his function’s superior ROI, said, “Yes, you’re correct that we spend less than our competitors in absolute and relative terms. Some might call us cheap, but I call us scrappy.”
With absolute and relative, he positioned himself as financially sophisticated; with cheap and scrappy, he came across as a regular guy. Together, that produced a passage readers remember.
4. Be dynamic, not dull.
One of the best ways to keep a reader interested is through variety. Academic and formal writing are often dull because their structure and beat are monotonous. English has a rhythm that’s determined by the syllables that are stressed. The basic rhythm of English is typified by the iambic pentameter in Shakespeare’s sonnets. We can describe this as “da DUM da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM,” or as Taylor Swift would say, “I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, sha-ake.” (Da-DUM is the iamb, and there are five of them in a line, hence pentameter.)
There are many variations on this pattern, but your writing should have a satisfying beat. One way to do this is by varying sentence length. If you have one or two long sentences, finish the paragraph with a short one. That not only creates a good rhythm, but it’s an excellent way to emphasize your point.
Short sentences also make pithy—and hence memorable—beginnings. “Call me Ismael” may be English literature’s most famous opening sentence. Short sentences also focus attention, especially at the beginnings and ends of paragraphs.
Also, consider varying the construction of your sentences. If you’ve started two sentences with a subject, try starting the next one differently. For instance, “They met…” and “They debated…” might be followed by “Once the plan was in place, they began looking for a project manager.”
5. Make it mellifluous.
Mellifluous is a fancy way of saying, “Put words that sound good together close to each other.” A famous example is William Butler Yates’s poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree: “I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.” Note the alliteration of “lake water lapping with low sounds.” All those L words caress the ear, and the open vowels of A and O create euphony. And are memorable because of it.
We’re not suggesting business articles need to be poetic; they just shouldn’t be ugly. For example: “These granular, client-level impact metrics, such as customer satisfaction scores and churn, will become the currency that leaders use to ensure that required enterprise resources, talent, and budget are allocated most cost-effectively.”
We might rewrite this as, “Leaders can use customer-satisfaction scores to help them choose the best places to assign resources,” which has a modicum of alliteration with the S sounds and a sprightlier rhythm.
Another way to please your reader’s ear is to link paragraphs by repeating a word from the last sentence in the first sentence of the next. For instance, if the last sentence in a paragraph references superlatives, the following paragraph might start with, “How can you stop using superlatives?”
6. Sprinkle fairy dust
Now that we’ve shared the big ways to make your writing more melodious, we wanted to leave you with a few smaller tricks to make your prose more memorable.
- Cliches: These are best avoided but can be effective if you tweak them a bit. For example—again from Wodehouse—”An apple a day, if well aimed, keeps the doctor away.”
- Colloquialisms: Using everyday language can help make copy more accessible. A business publication we submit articles to recently had a colloquialism in almost every headline on its home page, including coin-toss, die-hard, and higher-ups. They even lightened up a perennial IT strategy dilemma with a riff on Shakespeare: “To build or to buy? That’s the question.”
- Repetition: A repeated word or phrase can help emphasize your message when thoughtfully deployed. Winston Churchill used repetition to drive home points and make them memorable, most famously in his “On the Beaches” speech: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” While it’s perhaps not quite as rousing an example, we used this strategy in an article we recently posted: “Writing headlines is an invitation to be witty. Witty rarely works.” A repeated word or phrase can also act like a song’s refrain or chorus when used throughout a piece.
- Antitheses and antimetaboles: Those feeling particularly confident can use these devices to create poignant and powerful prose. A famous example of antithesis, which uses parallel but opposite words to convey contrast, is Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Antimetabole, in which the second part of a sentence inverts an idea introduced in the first part, is exemplified in John Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
A tune they’ll remember
Reading your writing aloud is the best way to see whether these devices are working. If you just read your work silently to yourself, you’re liable to miss issues like awkward phrases, convoluted sentences, and inadvertent repetitions. You know what you intended to write, and it’s easy to think that’s what you’ve written.
When you read it out loud—particularly after setting it aside for a day or two—you’ll hear the rhythm of the words and notice if something spoils that rhythm. This is especially important if you are inclined to write lengthy, formal sentences. Remember, the power of your writing lies not just in the facts you present but in the melody you create with your words. So, make your prose sing and leave your readers with a tune they won’t forget.