In his wonderful book, On Writing—A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King describes a bell curve of writing ability. At the high end, two or three sigmas out, stand such titans as Shakespeare and Milton, plus a host of other greats. At the opposite end are those who should find another line of work.
Advice for potentially good writers
Between these two extremes, King believes many writers have potential to move significantly towards the greats. He goes on to prescribe some steps aspiring writers can take to improve.
King published his book in 2000. A decade later, President Obama signed the U.S. Plain Writing Act of 2010, aimed at making communications by Federal agencies easier for the public to understand.
The Act, like all acts, was written by and for lawyers. But the companion Plain Language Guidelines are nothing short of gold for aspiring proposal writers. They hit all the notes we’ve been stressing for years. For example:
• Write the way you speak
• Use the active voice and simplest form of verbs
• Use short, simple words
• Write short, simple sentences and paragraphs
• Use lists, tables and illustrations
• Write separate copy for print and the Web
And they include examples for each guideline.
Won’t make you Shakespeare—or even King
Some writers work magic with language. They’re the Crosbys and LeBrons of their chosen craft. Don’t expect these results from studying and following the guidelines. But do expect to become a much better proposal writer.
Following the guidelines will remove your writing as an obstacle to effective communication. You’ll still need to be strategic, use consistent messaging, stress benefits and understand pain points to produce content that can sell.
Read it aloud
We devoted an earlier blog post to this final bit of advice. It’s a great test of whether the guidelines are having the desired effect. Read anything you’ve written aloud, before hitting SEND or PRINT. (Yes, you really do have to read it aloud.)
If your copy is sound, you won’t run out of breath or stumble on the phrasing. It’s ready. Unleash it on the world! And good luck!
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