Business writing (aka content writing) and other expository prose don’t have to be flat and dull. People respond to lively, engaging writing that includes something a little unexpected, a little creative … and when the language conveys energy.
Creativity can make your writing stand out, pay dividends. However, it must be used judiciously and never be allowed to obscure your message.
Following are some tips and examples — all taken from my writing — of how to make your writing catch readers’ attention.
Use unexpected examples or juxtapositions.
- This is the opening of a news release about dinosaur-related activities spawned by a Tyrannosaurus rex exhibit:
Five million years ago, when the first of the major Hawaiian Islands were just emerging from the sea in an awesome volcanic display, some 60 million years had already passed since the extinction of another of the planet’s most awesome phenomena, the dinosaurs. This summer, however, with its customary aloha, Hawaii is giving the dinosaurs a second chance. Twenty-first-century reincarnations of the ancient lizards will be popping up from Hilo to Hanalei.
- From an op-ed intended to gain publicity for an aquaculture project:
This new industry takes advantage of one of Hawaii’s best-kept secrets and least heralded resources: the bracing, 45-degree waters of the Pacific.
- This is the opening of an article about the Hawaii Nature Center:
Slugfest. For a lot of people committed to the environmental cause, that’s the image of the seemingly endless battles being waged to protect the air, water and land that sustain life on our planet. For a small environmental organization in Hawaii, however, “slugfest” conjures up quite a different picture — an innovative program for the education of a very important opinion group: “three-to-five-year-old slime lovers.”
- From a holiday-related news release on behalf of a website selling made-in-Hawaii products:
We like to think of the holidays as a time of warmth and cheer. But by the time December makes its presence felt, the domain of warmth and cheer is all too often compressed to an ever-shrinking circle by those other heralds of the season: icy roads, biting winds, gray skies, long nights, cold feet and runny noses. There’s nothing like a little sunshine and aloha from Hawaii to inject fresh reserves of warmth and cheer into the bottle. So if you’re desperately seeking aloha, check out the website that can dissolve those holiday blues with a touch of Blue Hawaii….
- This is the opening of an article about coffee growing on the island of Kauai:
If you’re looking for excitement, the “west side” of Kauai may be a little too quiet. Big events here have tended to occur at intervals better measured in centuries than decades. A convenient benchmark might be 220 years ago, when Captain James Cook landed at Waimea, after Kauai unexpectedly loomed up in front of him as he was sailing from Tahiti to Alaska.
- From a review of a neighborhood Indian restaurant:
It took a computer whiz from Madras to bridge this gustatory gap. Ravi Shivaraman has wedged an entire subcontinent into a modest storefront between Mike’s Barbershop and the Post Office.
Make numbers speak.
- Why say 31.7 percent, when you can say “one out of three” or “nearly a third”?
- Why say 48 years, when you can say “nearly half a century” or “almost five decades” or “two generations” or “before most of us were born” or “over half a lifetime ago”?
- From an article about the U.S. sweetener industry:
… a single pound of honey is the product of about 500 bees’ work in collecting nectar from over 2.5 million flowers. It follows, then, that American honey lovers, who consume 125,000 tons of the stuff a year, are keeping some 125 billion (125,000,000,000) bees busy buzzing around 625 trillion (625,000,000,000,000) flowers.
- From an article about the delivery of two huge telescope mirrors to the “Big Island” of Hawaii:
Both mirrors are light-years beyond everyday concepts of precision. Ground and polished for four years …, the Subaru mirror surface has been smoothed to within about half a millionth of an inch. The surface of Gemini … is precise to within a thousandth of the diameter of a human hair. To make such perfection easier to imagine, if the Big Island could be leveled and polished as evenly (in proportion) as the Subaru mirror, the biggest bump would be no higher than the thickness of two sheets of paper. If the entire earth could be smoothed to the same accuracy as Gemini, the tallest hill would be less than a foot high.
- From the introduction to an article about sugar:
Imagine a bathtub filled with ice cream. Now imagine not one, but four bathtubs — brim full of plain vanilla. That’s how much of the cold, sweet stuff you could make with the 65 pounds of sugar that the average American consumes every year.
If those same 65 pounds of sugar – more than a typical five-pound, grocery-store bag full for each month in the calendar – were instead poured into a gargantuan bowl of cookie dough, it would be enough to bake more than 6,000 two-inch chocolate chip cookies. Laid out side by side, those cookies would stretch over 1,000 feet, about the length of an aircraft carrier.
If that seems like a lot of sugar, multiply it by the population of the country (267 million), and voilà – there you have 8.6 million tons of sugar, the total annual U.S. consumption. That’s enough to cover the island of Lanai — or the city of Philadelphia — under an inch of the white granules. If you baked it all into chocolate chip cookies, you could completely resurface the islands of Maui, Molokai, Kauai and Niihau with them … bury Washington, D.C. to a depth of 26 cookies (13 inches) … or pave a road long enough to circle the earth three times.
That may be a new perspective on something most people take pretty much for granted, but it really provides little to chew on. In considering a substance that does so much to flavor our lives and energize our bodies, it would be more useful to ask what sugar is, where it comes from, and how it fits into the broader picture of sweeteners we commonly use. And that is precisely what our cover article does, beginning on the opposite page.
Use lively language.
- From website copy for a pool-cleaning service:
You have a pool or a hot tub, but there’s something you probably don’t have — the time, patience or experience to maintain it … to keep it running smoothly, filtering and circulating the water, and maintaining it free of debris and the algae that can turn your pride and joy into a green petri dish.
We all know that green is good — but pond scum is for frogs! That’s why you need us. We have what you lack: 20 years of pool maintenance experience. PLUS the time and patience needed to keep your pool a sparkling, healthy, inviting, relaxing oasis. Let’s be a team. You provide the pool. We provide the work. You Swim … We’ll Skim!
- From a speech in which the airlines’ problems were discussed:
Deregulation created tremendous competition, but competing on price has been deadly for an industry with 747-sized costs. The sticker on a new Boeing ranges from $35 million to more than $230 million. Fuel consumption is measured in tons per hour…. Despite stratospheric costs, competition keeps fares down at treetop level.
- From an article about Honolulu’s Bishop Museum:
… dust-speck-sized bugs that call attention to the very fine line between the visible and the microscopic.
- From an article about coffee growing on the island of Kauai:
Attending a cupping is an experience in which the aroma of fresh coffee competes with an assault on the eardrums, as the half-dozen or so cuppers slurp their way through 40 to 50 samples, then discharge each mouthful into a spittoon.
Play with words.
- From an article about Nawiliwili Harbor on Kauai. Here I tried to find a lively way to say that virtually all the island’s imports — “everything else” — come through the harbor:
Everything else comes by sea — apples and appliances, hardware and formal wear, office cubicles and pharmaceuticals, gasoline and Vaseline, CDs and BVDs.
- Rhymes, alliteration and a bit of playful double entendre in a news release describing “aloha wear” for dogs:
Why should your pooch be clad in plaid, when you can dress her up in an aloha print? She’ll be the most elegant bitch on the block…. For Bowser, an aloha tie makes the ultimate statement in doggie style…. From Chihuahuas to Great Danes …, we put togs on your dogs.
- From an op-ed intended to gain publicity for an aquaculture project:
The single-shelled abalone is a highly prized ingredient in epicurean dishes around the world — a veritable gastropod for gastronomes.
- From an article about the threat to Hawaii presented by snakes on Guam:
… federal agents and trained snake-sniffing dogs do their best to maintain a viper vigil around Guam’s port and airfields.
Play with puns (but don’t overdo it).
- From an article on a California-Hawaii sailing race:
While sailing may be fun, it also involves plenty of hard work. Racing, especially, is no breeze.
- From an article on Kauai’s National Tropical Botanical Garden. Here, the narrative is about the director, a man of extraordinary accomplishments:
[His] accomplishments could fill the lives of several garden-variety high achievers.
Listen for great quotes and incorporate them in your writing.
- The start of an obituary:
“Old sailors never die, they just drop the anchor,” said Robert J. Pfeiffer over a decade ago as he was contemplating retirement. Pfeiffer, one of Hawaii’s most renowned sailors and captains of industry, dropped the anchor Friday at age 83, after a lengthy illness.
- From an article about the Hawaii Nature Center:
“We’re kids, we’re mud, and we’re mosquitoes,” says the Hawaii Nature Center’s executive director….
- From an article about Nawiliwili Harbor on Kauai:
“Thanks to Charlie Scharsch, the people of Kauai got up to the trough while there was still food in it.”