I wanted to spend a bit of time writing about writing. How do you write content that people are engaged with. It’s what I learned from a book I read back in 2016.
Clear writing is the theme of the book. Not writing more than you need to and keeping your ideas short. This helps you signpost to your readers what you’ll be writing about. It also stops them getting lost in a rambling sentence.
The first part of the book covers the five readability principles.
- Be Direct
- Active vs Passive
- Keep it short and simple
- One sentence, One idea
- Proof it.
Being direct is saying it how it is. If you’re writing and only have a set number of words (e.g. a Newspaper advert) you’ll be direct. Man seeks woman with a good sense of humour.
That’s being direct. Another example would be saying Take out the garbage. Less direct versions would be
- Is there any chance you could take out the garbage today?
- There’s a lot of trash in the kitchen, it would be fantastic if you were to transfer it outside into the big plastic containers.
Active vs Passive
This one is a good one and something I’m using again which I’d long forgotten about is the Hemmingway App. Paste in your content and it tells you how readable it is. It breaks down how many active vs passive sentences you have and gives you suggestions to improve it.
But what do I mean by “Active” voice. The active voice writing stronger, more direct, and more active. The subject is something. With the passive voice, the subject is acted upon by something else.
- Active: Mike kicked the ball
- Passive: The ball was kicked by Mike.
There are situations where you can use the passive voice without an issue though, like saying “My car was stolen today”.
Keep it short and simple
This one I really like. It’s the trait of not writing too much around a topic. Keeping the message short and simple helps you not to ramble on. We’re often tricked by word counts and the concept that Google prefers 10,000 word pieces of content.
That makes it really hard for someone to follow the content through. You’re rambling to hit a word count and probably not that engaged. You can still keep a longer piece of content short and simple if it’s broken down into different ideas.
One Sentence, One Idea
This is another pearl of wisdom I wish I knew sooner. If you keep one sentence for each idea, you won’t confuse your readers with knowing what you’re talking about.
By ensuring each sentence contains just a single idea, you free up your reader’s energy to focus on your point, rather than on trying to keep track of your thought process. This is crucial if what you’re communicating is complicated or technical (or, dare we say it, a bit dull).Writing Skills
So you might start writing a sentence like this one, where you write the same way you think, I woke up and starting thinking about what I should write my next blog post on which I did over breakfast, I had eggs with beans and made myself a strong coffee.
Woah. See? One sentence, one idea would be something like:-
I woke up at 6am. I had my usual breakfast of beans and eggs on toast with coffee. Then I sat down and thought about what I should write.
Finally, to round up the first part of the book on readability – make sure you proof it afterwards. The way I do this is I like to set a piece of writing down (or in draft) and come back to it the next day with fresh eyes. I can then edit out parts which don’t make sense. I’ll also more than likely spot any typos I may have made.
Writing for the web.
If you have a blog, you’ll be used to this one. Even if you are already familiar with writing for the web – it’s worth a refresher. I break this down into three principles:-
- The title
- The content
- Cross links
The title – this is the difference of whether someone will click through to your content or not. I like to think of titles the same way a newspaper editor will. It needs to be attention grabbing.
The content – If I’m covering a few areas (like this post) I’ll start off by putting all the headings down so I can then see the structure. I’ll then work my way through each area and write what I want to cover.
If it’s a long piece of content I’ll break it up with some images so you’re not just staring at a big wall of text.
Cross links – These help tell a story and you can bring in other pieces of your content. It’s much easier than writing an email where you can’t say “see my email of 5 days ago” and expect them to find it easily.
Writing for email.
Some of us still do this every day. If you’re writing emails there’s a few golden rules I follow:-
- If you’re attaching something. Say it first. See the attached PDF it covers our quarterly report.
- Keep it even shorter. People get a lot of emails. They don’t want to read a rambling intro.
- Sign it off appropriately and don’t use capitals (unless you want to come across as shouting).
Avoid jargon and abbreviations
This is a big bug bear of mine. Abbreviations and acronyms. IIRC and often I can’t, I struggle to recall what abbreviations even mean. It’s even worse when it could mean a few different things. How many times have you used the following in written communication:-
The list can go on. Some are pretty obvious, at least to you.
If you feel like you need to use them, then define them the first time around. This is especially true for acronyms. Here’s an example: The dots per inch (DPI) on my printer is 1200. I’ve seen a lot of other printers with higher DPI but does it matter?
Writing for a global audience
This one could be a subject of a full blog post. Writing for a global audience. There’s a few examples here where you can be clear by avoid common things.
- Will the movie be out in the summer? Not in Australia it won’t be.
- What’s our North star aim? (in some places, the “north” star isn’t in the north).
Following style guides
Finally, it’s worth seeing if your company or organisation has style guides to follow. If not, it’s worth starting one of these yourself (take some of this post for inspiration). There’s other things style guides might cover:-
- Headings (and how they are capitalized)
- Lists (whether they are capitalized and how they are punctuated)
- Numbers (when they should be spelled in full)
- Rules for chapter, figure and table headings (including numbering)
Numbers is an interesting one. What I tend to do is if the number is less than 10 I’ll write the word, otherwise I’ll type the number. Of course, here’s some examples.
- I picked out one apple to give to my 92 year old grandma.
- 17 dogs were outside my window but only one of them had spots.
It’s a particular style, but it’s not necessarily the correct one. A style guide is more important if you have a group of writers and a single editor that could edit the work of each writer. It’s better to have each writer aligned to the style of the blog / newspaper / whatever vs giving extra work to the editor.