Step 2 to becoming a kick-ass writer
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.