With changeover in the European Commission and Parliament well under way, this year’s Brussels rentree (‘return to school’) has almost certainly been busier than usual. If you are one of the many people moving out of the EU institutions or between communications roles, then chances are you will soon be doing a lot of writing for external audiences.
However, writing well is not something that comes naturally to many people performing these jobs. Despite being important, it’s one of the skills that is often neglected; both at the initial recruitment stage but also later on when it may be easier for time-pushed managers to re-write a junior’s work rather than sit down with them, explain what was missing and then get them to re-do it.
Here a few tips for writers and editors working both in the Brussels Bubble and beyond:
1. Good writing starts with good judgment
This means that you or your team need to be able to recognise what it is that you like and admire about other people’s writing. This is easy to do when it comes to talking about a favourite film or book. Less so when it comes to looking at a position paper or op-ed. However, taking the time to deconstruct someone else’s work – whether it’s that of a journalist or a colleague working in a similar organisation – will help you to identify what makes it compelling. You need to be quite tough here – when scrutinising something’s merits you need to be specific i.e. it’s not enough to know that something was good, you need to be able to say why.
2. Do a style guide
If you want your team to write in a certain way then you need to adopt a house style. This may seem
unnecessary if you are a two -person outfit. But even if you are a small trade association or member organisation a style guide can still be a useful reminder that your writing needs to stand up to outside scrutiny – and not just be a lacklustre statement about the compromise you have had to put out because your internal audience can’t agree. More and more writing gets put out on different platforms now. Some basic house rules are essential. But keep them short and to the point. No one will respect your authority as a good judge of pithy writing if your style guide is two hundred pages.
3. Audience driven
Before writing anything, your audience has to be your priority. Who will read your work and why? How much do they know, and how much time will they give your text before they get bored and turn to something else? These are questions you should have at the forefront of your mind before you write (and sometimes they will determine whether or not you should write at all). When writing for the larger Brussels audience you shouldn’t assume that anyone has expert knowledge of the issue in question. Very few people are that niche and, if they are, you will almost certainly be sending them something specialist privately. For the general audience, keep it general. Which means tell the bigger story.
4. Make it interesting
Good writing is often about the subject but more often it’s about style. This means it needs to be both interesting and easy to read. To take the latter first: good writing uses active verbs, mixes up sentence length and uses jargon-free and compelling language to tell a story. Meaningful numbers and examples (particularly ones which show the impact or benefit of a particular policy at a Member State level) are also very helpful for making writing concrete and real.
5. Make it easy
You can do a lot to make your writing easy on the reader’s eye. Structuring it with clear messages before you start is an important starting point. And key points should be broken up with text boxes, bullet points or other aids that make it easier for the reader to absorb what’s important. Don’t overuse any of these tools: otherwise your final text will look shouty and messy, which is almost certainly not your desired effect.
These are just a few of things I notice people often struggle with. Good luck – and tell me what’s worked for you.