Great writing tips for bloggers

June 14, 2007 | Background | 8 comments

For my first couple of years of college I was a journalism major. I really enjoyed it, but ended up changing my major after the former award-winning editor of the big school newspaper returned to give a much-anticipated Career Day speech. He shuffled to the front of the class, leaned on a chalk board, and began his speech with, “It’s worse than you think.” As soon as he wrapped up the last story of nearly starving to death after months on end of unemployment, low pay, and terrible hours, I ran over to the administration building to change my major.

I’m really glad I spent two years in that major, however, since it prepared me well for blogging (and that’s what counts, right?) The intense focus on brevity and clarity — and writing on tight deadlines — has served me well in my 3+ years of having various blogs. Not that I’m a great writer, but the school of thought of “cut, then cut some more” has served me well in distilling and organizing my thoughts as I put them to paper (or to screen, as the case may be). It’s helped me to think more clearly, and hopefully to write more clearly.

When I think back on what I learned in all those classes, one article we read in Journalism 101 always stands out. It concisely summarized all the key points I took away from my journalism training. I thought I had lost it years ago, so I was excited when I discovered it this morning among some newly unpacked books.

I think advice is really helpful, especially for bloggers who write for short-attention-span web surfers, so I’m going to type up some highlights for anyone else who might be interested. Enjoy!

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How to write clearly
by Edward T. Thompson (former editor of Reader’s Digest)

If you are afraid to write, don’t be. If you think you’ve got to string together big fancy words and high-flying phrases, forget it. To write well, unless you aspire to be a professional poet or novelist, you only need to get your ideas across simply and clearly. […]

If, while you’re writing for clarity, some lovely, dramatic or inspired phrases or sentences come to you, fine. Put them in. But then with cold, objective eyes and mind ask yourself: “Do they detract from clarity?” If they do, grit your teeth and cut the frills.

SOME BASIC GUIDELINES

Start where your readers are
How much do they know about the subject? Don’t write to a level higher than your readers’ knowledge of it.

Caution: Forget the old — and wrong — advice about writing to a 12-year-old mentality. That’s insulting. But do remember that your prime purpose is to explain something, not prove that you’re smarter than your readers.

Use familiar word combinations
A speech writer for President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote, “We are endeavoring to construct a more inclusive society.” F.D.R. changed it to, “We’re going to make a country in which no one is left out.”

Use “first-degree” words
These words immediately bring an image to your mind. Other words must be “translated” through the first-degree word before you see the image. Those are second/third degree words. Some examples:

  • face ==> visage, countenance
  • stay ==> abide, remain, reside
  • book ==> volume, tome, publication

First-degree words are usually the most precise words, too.

Be as brief as possible
Whatever you write, shortening — condensing — almost always makes it tighter, straighter, easier to read and understand. Condensing…is in large part artistry. But it involves techniques that anyone can learn and use.

  • Present your points in logical ABC order: …To write in a straight line is to say something clearly in the fewest possible words.
  • Don’t waste words telling people what they already know: Notice how we edited this: “Have you ever wondered how banks rate you as a credit risk? You know, of course, that it’s some combination of facts about your income, your job, and so on, but actually Many banks have a scoring system…”
  • Cut out excess evidence and avoid unnecessary anecdotes: Usually, one fact or example (at most, two) will support a point. More just belabor it. And while writing about something that may remind you of a good story, ask yourself, “Does it really help to tell the story, or does it slow me down?”
  • Look for the most common word wasters: Some examples:
    at the present time ==> now
    in the event of ==> if
    in the majority of instances ==> usually

  • Look for passive verbs you can make active: Invariably, this produces a shorter sentence. “The cherry tree was chopped down by George Washington.” (Passive verb and nine words.) “George Washington chopped down the cherry tree.” (Active verb and seven words.)
  • Look for positive/negative sections from which you can cut the negative: See how we did it here: “The answer does not rest with carelessness or incompetence. It lies largely in is having enough people to do the job.”
  • Finally, to write more clearly by saying it in fewer words: When you’ve finished, stop.
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Just thought I’d share in case there are any fellow writing nerds out there. ๐Ÿ™‚

8 Comments

  1. Kristi

    Thanks for posting this! I’m in the editorial (and occasionally, writing) field and it’s always good to have reminders/pointers…
    My husband is the one who referred me to your blog recently. Gosh, he’s smart. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m enjoying it a lot so far. (Although I don’t know if I would use the term “enjoying” when it comes to your scorpion posts. More like “reeling in fear.” But it’s entertaining!)

  2. Sarah

    Jen,

    I think I had that book at one time. I’ll have to look around for it. Anyway, thanks for posting that section.

    Yeah, fellow writing nerd here.;)

  3. Jessica

    Thanks for posting that; it brought back great memories of college writing courses.

    I had a professor who would put our essays on his laptop, project them up on the wall, do a word count, and then tell us we were going to cut the word count in half without significantly cutting content.

    And? We managed it almost every time. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. el-e-e

    Excellent tips! Thanks for sharing this. I, too, had a professor who encouraged us to say what we mean, and then end it. ๐Ÿ™‚ Loved him.

  5. Sarahndipity

    I was an English major in college, but I was on my school newspaper and started out in journalism when I graduated. It turned out to be a mistake. That speaker was basically right about it. Long hours, low pay. Itโ€™s only worth it if you really love it. I liked it but I didnโ€™t love it. I realized Iโ€™m an artist at heart, and while I love to write, I donโ€™t love to write about prescription drugs (what I was writing about at the time.) I only love to write creatively or about something Iโ€™m passionate about. I like blogging because I can write about whatever I want. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for posting the article โ€“ although when I blog, I basically just bang it out and throw it up there with little thought about organization.

  6. Becky

    Ahh, this reminds me of a class I took last semester. Good times.

    But anyways, I ran across your blog and wanted to say hello and congrats on recently entering the Church! I’m a new Catholic too, and it’s great to have you as a sister in Christ. God bless+

  7. elena maria vidal

    This is very interesting to me, Jen, and helps me understand the different approaches to writing I see on the internet. Since I write novels, my focus is more on the poetry and the flow of the text in a slightly different way from a journalist’s approach. I was taught in college creative writing classes not use the same word over and over again. So instead of saying “face” three times, I will use synonyms such as “visage” or “countenance,” as long as it fits with the mood of the scene I am building.

    A journalist, on the other hand, is trying to impart current information in as clear and concise a manner as possible. Whereas my purpose in writing my books is to explore latent truths and underlying meanings in the psychology of the characters. Some great writers are able to do that with very simple language, such as C.S. Lewis. Everyone has a different style. Fascinating!

  8. Denise

    Good stuff, thanks for sharing. Now if I could just improve my grammar skills……

    I came across your blog through the Catholic Moms and I’ve really been enjoying it.

    Scorpions are no fun, but they have to be better than the palmetto bugs I grew up with in Florida. Those guys are *freaky*!

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