Writing tips with Sam Leith

Sam Leith is literary editor at The Spectator. Every day, he uses language 'tricks' to entice a reader to read on. We asked Sam to share his top tips on how to win your reader’s attention. And then keep it.

What’s the difference between a sentence people will want to read, and one they won’t? This is a problem for all writers, and for the authors of corporate comms material in particular.

We live in an attention economy, and you’re up against competition from Candy Crush Saga, personal emails, a trip to Pret and any number of other activities that might seem a more attractive – or less taxing – use of your reader’s attention.

What do I suggest? Cheap tricks, first of all. Such as asking the reader a question, as I do here. Every comms theorist from Aristotle on tells you to open a direct channel between speaker and audience. A question, a command, an unexpected but direct appeal… all of these put you in an immediate relationship with your reader. And they encourage him or her to read on. What’s the answer to the question? Why should I do as you say?

You can also seek to borrow some of the things that make leisure reading – fiction, for instance, or social media – attractive. That is, use recognisable human detail where possible (Candy Crush; the trip to Pret). Use 'I' or 'we' and 'you' rather, than, say 'BigCorp PLC' and 'the respondent'. Seek to evoke an emotional response. Be conversational rather than monologic. 

Many writing guides ask you to use concrete language and visual images. There’s a reason for that. Our brains have to work harder on abstraction: we like mental pictures and storytelling, but we remember abstract notions with difficulty. A snappy phrase can help, too. Why say "we observed behavioural divergence according to innate or acculturated gender differences" when you can say "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus"?

"Seek to evoke an emotional response. Be conversational rather than monologic."
Sam Leith

Long words, long sentences and laborious passive constructions make the reader’s brain work harder. The harder your brain is working the easier you’ll find it to wander off and do something else. It was said of Henry James’s late style that he "chewed more than he could bite off"; not advisable in comms work. 

Be crisp and direct. Put the interesting bit up top. Assume, especially in a press release or a marketing email, that you have two or three sentences at most to snag the reader’s attention. Learn from newspaper style: we put the important grabby bit in the headline – "Gruesome Murder of Toothpaste Heiress" – unpack it briskly in the first paragraph, and only roll out the lesser details once the reader is invested in the story.  

This principle affects sentence structure too. Prefer 'right-branching sentences', where the subject and verb and object – the sentence’s headline news – are near the beginning. If the reader has to wade through a thicket of qualifying clauses before he or she reaches the central point, he’ll struggle to focus.  

"We’re buying a new factory – because X, Y and Z" is that much easier to decode than "Owing to X, Y and Z, which provide compelling reasons to expand our productive capacity, a decision has been taken – at board level but after consultation with middle management and regional stakeholders – to purchase an additional manufacturing facility..."

"Be crisp and direct. Put the interesting bit up top."
Sam Leith

These may sound like small things. You may think that what you say is far more important than how you say it. But believe me: it doesn’t matter what you say if nobody is bothering to listen. With the right words – resonant words, carefully chosen and ordered for maximum impact – you can transform the way in which people hear your message. 

Thanks, Sam! Top tips, every one. They apply just as much to personal writing as they do brand language. You can learn more from Sam in his brilliant books Write To The Point and You Talkin' To Me?