Getting your readers to actually read

Step 2 to becoming a kick-ass writer

(Read Step 1 here)

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This week, my dad sent me a TED talk by linguist John McWhorter. While the gist of the talk is about texting’s impact on language, a few minutes of it are dedicated to the evolution of speech and writing.

At about 03:11, McWhorter explains how decades ago, it was natural to speak like you wrote. (Cue the Gettysburg Address.) He argues that, while people likely wanted to write like they spoke, the execution was a lot harder back then.

Try capturing a conversation word for word with only a quill and parchment. Or an old school typewriter that you have to manually feed paper into. Not very easy. But, according to the TED talk, the problem went beyond that.

“Even if you can type easily enough to keep up with the pace of speech… you have to have somebody who can receive your message quickly,” says McWhorter.

McWhorter’s talking about phones here, of course, but his statement got my wheels turning.

The Web’s Influence on Writing

The Web has seriously evolved the way we write. Not just because it’s a medium all its own, and not just because Web-based content serves an entirely different purpose than other formats (though both are certainly part of it).

The Web has evolved writing is because it’s also evolved our attention spans. In fact, the average person’s attention span is now LESS THAN A GOLDFISH (oh how I wish I was kidding), at about eight seconds, according to one study.

Thanks to the endless barrage of information coming at us from all directions, people today need to receive messages quickly. Long, dull, drawn out content gets in the way. Flowery language makes things hard to understand. Big blocks of text tell your brain, “Hey! This is going to take you a long time to read!”

So how can you actually get your readers to read?

Chop it up

If I’ve got under a tenth of a minute to get your attention, then the style, structure, and approach of my copy better be on point.

Hence the visual-heavy, subhead-laden, written-like-you’d-say-it, list-style articles many publications write.

They’re not writing that way because it’s trendy or because people aren’t smart enough to read an in-depth analysis (OK, that’s debatable). They’re doing it because when your brain sees an article that’s visually broken up by images, bold words, and concise paragraphs, it says, “Wow! This looks nice. It’s formatted so that it’s easy to read. Let’s go!” `

Here are a few ways to break up your copy:

  • Keep your paragraphs short. And I mean short. Even four or five sentences is pushing it.
  • Call out what’s important. Bold it. Underline it. Increase the font size. Whatever it takes to help your readers get the point.
  • Make it scannable. Break it up. Add subheads. Include images. Call out important quotes. Include bullets. Organize points in a list.

Strip it down

Whether it’s a blog, email, or another kind of content, one of my biggest pet peeves is when people take too long to get to the point. Convey your message in as few words as possible.

Most of the time, it’s easier said than done – especially when what you’ve got to explain is complex. Because let’s face it, it’s easier to articulate something when you’re not limited to a word count.

But think of your writing like you’d think of an elevator pitch. If it takes you any longer than 30 seconds to explain what your business does, you’ve lost me. In the same vein, if it takes you 13 paragraphs and a postscript to explain why you want to meet on Monday, I’m deleting your email.

Next time you’ve finished writing, take a second to go back through your copy. Strip down every sentence. Carefully vet every word and consider:

  • Can you eliminate any unnecessary words?
  • Are you padding your sentences with fluffy language?
  • Is it possible to make the same point in less words?

If you answered yes to any of these, put your editor’s hat on and get to work.

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How to become a kick-ass writer

Step 1: Find your voice

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Voice. It’s usually one of the hardest concepts for new writers or “non-writers” (those people who tell you, “I’m not a writer” but actually they are because they still send emails/update their Facebook status/write notes in birthday cards) to wrap their heads around.

I think it’s because you spend so many years writing five-paragraph essays and academic research reports, graded by teachers and professors who X-out any inkling of voice or creativity. Unless you’re blessed with a lucky teacher or two who helps cultivate you as a writer (thank you, Mrs. Couture/Jen Augur!), you spend 18ish years stripping any and all voice right out of your writing.

But if you ask me (and let’s assume you did because – here you are – reading my blog), a strong voice is what sets great writers and great copy apart. Establish your own tone, really nail your personal writing style, and you immediately separate yourself from 90 percent of the garbage out there.

So, OK great. Voice is a must. But how do you actually figure yours out?

Throw conventions out the window.

No really, I’m serious. All that five paragraph essay nonsense you learned about in eighth grade? Forget it. (Most of it. Remember a little bit of it, because a teensy shred of it was actually kind of relevant.)

There are rules in writing – sure. But most of them are made to be broken. Nine times out of 10, no one’s going to be there to slash red pen through each line of the email you wrote. Contractions are OK. A run-on sentence isn’t going to kill anyone – especially if it’s written in a way that sounds authentic. So long as you’re not throwing commas all over the damn place or writing typo-laden notes, no one’s going to come chasing after you. 

If the rules of the writing road really do matter to you, then take the time to learn and master them. But don’t let your fear of them hold you back from picking up your pen in the first place.

Do some character work.

I used to work at an agency where I helped clients develop and execute their content marketing strategies. One of my favorite things about that job was helping new customers identify their brand style and voice.

“If your brand was a person, who would it be?” I’d ask. “How would she describe herself? What qualities would he have? What would your brand read on the weekends?”

(I know. You’re like, “Umm, my brand wouldn’t read anything on the weekends because it’s a brand and doesn’t have eyes. Or a brain. Or opposable thumbs to flip/scroll through the page.”)

One of my favorite answers was from a company that was trying to reinvent itself to engage Millennials (we’re so popular, guys!). They had clearly thought deeply about the question, because they said, “We’re business savvy. We’re experts in our industry, probably the smartest guy in the room, and we’ll tell you everything we know in a way that makes you feel smart, too. But, while everyone else is wearing suits and ties, we’re in shorts and flip flops.” That answer blew my hair back. I remember thinking, “YES!! These people get. it.”

You’re not a brand, obviously. But you can still identify the qualities you want to convey. Start by thinking about some key attributes you want associated with your writing. Do you want it to sound academic or should it feel like we’re catching up over your kitchen table? Are you buttoned up or is your style more laid-back?

Figure that out and then get ready to…

Take the training wheels off.

When I was in college and first starting this blog’s predecessor (my weekly column of the same name), I seriously struggled. I had this newfound freedom to write about whatever I wanted! In whatever style I wanted! But I was totally lost on how to do it. I kept trying to apply a journalistic/academic voice to my writing – mainly because I didn’t know any other style to write in – and it just. didn’t. work.

The more I kept trying to contain my copy to that style, the more I hated that damn column. Until one week, when I wrote on a topic that had me really heated. I was so up in arms over it that I sat down at my laptop and, for about 30 minutes, typed exactly what was in my head on that subject. Off came the training wheels and my voice – my raw, unfiltered, really real voice – came busting out.

That was the first week where my column actually resonated with people. I know because kids came up to talk with me about it. Later on, my friend and co-editor at that paper helped me identify what made the column work.

“It reads like how you sound. It’s like we’re sitting across from each other having a cup of coffee,” she said.

The simplicity of that concept blew my hair back. I remember thinking, “YES!! Now I finally get. it.”

Whatever your voice is, this is what it really boils down to: Good writing isn’t boring. Good writing has personality and it exudes the kind of something different that makes you feel things and makes you think and – above all else – makes you want to keep reading.

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The markers that really signify success

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I think it’s really easy to mismeasure success. Instead of quantifying it in meaningful milestones, we end up looking to factors that – at the end of the day – are pretty insignificant: professional title or salary. The size of someone’s house. What’s hanging in their closet.

Don’t get me wrong. In some ways, these things do define success – but I think it’s easy to place so much significance on them that you miss what’s really important. I’m super career driven, so I won’t sit here and pretend like I’m not proud of what I’ve accomplished professionally. I’m also not going to pretend that material possessions – like my house – aren’t a marker of success for me. My husband and I bought our home when we were 27 and 25, respectively. That was (still is) a huge marker of success for us.

But over the past few years, I’ve started to place more importance on the small, blink-and-you-miss-them markers of success.

The other week, I was at an event and met someone who had read my work. That alone is a success-marker for me. It means that people actually read my stuff and think it’s good enough to remember my name. But the individual at that event took it further.

“I just started writing and it’s a lot harder than I expected,” he told me. “What advice do you have to help me improve?”

I think I stood there with my mouth hanging wide open for a second. Sure, people have asked me for advice about writing. But never a complete stranger. And never in a (relatively) non-professional setting. I quickly recovered, offered up a few tips, and we both went off on our merry little ways.

Who knows if that guy took my advice. Honestly, I don’t really care. Knowing that someone thought I was good enough at what I do to seek my guidance was HUGE. It definitely goes down on my list of success-defining moments (spoiler alert: I have no such list).

Measuring success in meaningful ways goes beyond outside validation, though. In fact, I think real success is rooted in your own self-confidence.

Take my friend, for example. She and her husband are new parents. They don’t own their home. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her wearing designer brand-anything. And I haven’t the slightest idea how much money they make. But, before their baby was born, my friend told me that she’d be returning to her role as an R.N. at a reputable hospital per diem.

Now, I know there’s 18 billion views and opinions on what moms should and shouldn’t do post-birth. Kind of a “damned if you do (stay home with your new baby), damned if you don’t” situation, right? But the first thing I felt when I heard my friend’s plans wasn’t judgemental – it was impressed. How AMAZING that she and her husband have figured out a way for her to stay home most days with their baby. And how EMPOWERING of my friend to be confident enough – in herself, in her career, in every aspect of her life – to choose to stay home.

To me, it signifies a woman who knows what’s really important in her life. It says, “I’m successful enough in my career to hop off the ladder for a minute without worrying that it’ll all collapse. And I’m confident enough in my decision to send any nay-sayers packing.”

At the end of the day, the number of Louboutins someone has in her closet says squat. But prioritizing the people who matter most – that speaks volumes. And isn’t that kind of success more important than whatever you’ve got on your resume or in the bank?

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