Switching Writing Styles: Cheat Codes for Writing (Almost) Anything
The ability to switch between different writing styles for different audiences is essential to anyone in the field of content marketing, or indeed any kind of business writing. But sometimes having to change style can feel like having an iPod on shuffle – sure, it’s all music, and you like all of it, but it’s still jarring when Led Zeppelin segues into the theme song from Winnie-the-Pooh. I’m not saying it’s happened to me.
Producing content for different clients may require a mental shift, but it doesn’t have to be an intimidating proposition. Mostly thanks to hours of staring at a blank white page on Word, I’ve discovered a few tactics that usually work for me.
1. Think about your (specific) audience.
This seems obvious, but can be harder that it sounds. Some people are excellent at writing for “technical advisors to manufacturing companies” or “travelers.” I’m not. I require specificity, even if I have to create it. A lot of writers talk about an “ideal reader,” and for many that’s an abstraction – “someone who understands what I’m trying to accomplish.” For me it’s the one friend I email my stories to. Similarly, when I write content I write to a few, usually made-up “buyer personas” – a 46-year-old man attending a weekend conference for a pharmaceutical company, or a family of five going on vacation to the beach. I can write to several of those people at the same time, but once I know who they are, it’s much easier to know what style I should use. I don’t have to consciously adjust my vocabulary or level of formality – it happens naturally because I know who I’m talking to and what I need to tell them.
2. Learn from people who know what they’re doing.
The best way to improve your writing is to read people who write better than you do. If you read lots of the kind of content you’re expected to produce, the style will seep into your brain and come out when you start to type. Talking helps as well as reading. You will never be an expert on every industry you write for – or at least I won’t be – but you can find people who are, and once you do it’s amazing what a few minutes of listening and taking notes can do.
3. Use the vocabulary, but don’t limit yourself to it.
Every industry has its own language, and adopting those terms is one of the easiest ways to clearly identify what you’re writing about and who you’re writing to. But while learning new vocabulary is helpful, the words you just learned aren’t the only ones that exist. When I first started doing technical writing I thought stringing together keywords was the best way to sound like I knew what I was talking about. But specialized terms work better when they’re naturally integrated into the way you already write. You have thousands of words stored away – why throw them out? Use all the tools you have available to you.
4. Don’t panic.
Whenever I get a new assignment I have a brief moment where I’m convinced I know nothing about what I’m doing. And it is true that writing for different clients and audiences requires learning new information and adjusting your style. But it’s also true that the basic rules of writing still apply. Varying sentence length, avoiding excessive repetition, choosing the active voice, not letting verbs get too far away from their nouns – if you can keep in mind all the techniques you’ve spent years practicing, then you’ll always know something about what you’re doing.
When I get stuck, I go back to the question one of my teachers used when he saw his students struggling over a sentence or a paragraph. After watching me alternate between glaring at my screen and glaring at my keyboard, he’d ask, “What are you trying to say?” That question has never failed me, no matter what I’m working on. Writing is just having something to say and figuring out the best way to say it. Remember that, and there’s no style you can’t learn.
Taylor Davidson – Content Marketing Writer