Hey, Newbie! That’s right. You. Yeah, you. Stop writing.
You heard me. Stop writing. Right now. Just stop. You done? Good, now we can move on.
When I teach composition, I start out the semester by telling the students that I have one rule about writing. That it’s a simple rule. I get in front of my classes, and I tell them, “Under no circumstances, do I ever want any of you to try to sound like a writer.”
Because that’s not the point. That’s not the point of all this. That’s not the point of writing. The point of writing isn’t to show people who verbose you can be. It’s not to let people see how extensive your word-hoarde is.
The point of writing is to communicate an idea as clearly as possible. And the best way to muck that up is to try to sound like a writer.
Case in point: compare Jane Austin and Stephen King. Apples and oranges in many cases, yes, but my point is that King is clearer than Austen. His ideas are clearer to grasp.
For instance, the first line of Pride and Prejudice reads, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” and the first line of The Gunslinger is “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed him.”
Genre, vocabulary, tone, time period, all that notwithstanding, which of these sentences communicates its idea more directly?
I’d have to say King’s. It’s more direct, more straight-forward. Sure, Austen’s is pretty, but she sounds like a writer.
And in terms of communication, that’s bad.
Back in the Day
I started this blog on Christmas Eve 2009. I thought I was a good writer. I thought that I had some pretty good ideas. And I did. For the most part.
The problem was that I considered myself to be…a writer.
That’s right. I broke my own cardinal rule. It took a lot of time and a lot of posts for me to realize that my early stuff was damn near unreadable. It wasn’t just because I was long-winded–which I was. It was because I had no idea how to write for the internet.
I was so used to writing academic papers that I had no idea what I was doing when it came to conveying simple ideas anymore. It took me years to be able to find my right style.
And now? Reading this is pretty much like having a conversation with me. I’ve found my voice. I’m so much more comfortable in my blogging now that I don’t feel like I have anything to prove.
Reading tons of blogs helped with this. Reading Syp’s Bio Break, Gordon’s We Fly Spitfires, and Matt’s World of Matticus helped me a lot because those bloggers are all very distinct because they’re not trying to be writers.
They’re trying to be people.
People on the internet don’t like to read.
They like to skim. So write in short sentences and equally short, scannable paragraphs. Break your ideas up into bite-sized chunks that people can take in snippets and tab away and get some work done before coming back.
Take that five-paragraph essay stuff…and stuff it. Take the idea of holding your best idea until last, and hold it out like a matador’s cape–right out in front of you. Let that be the first thing people see. And don’t be afraid to have a simple post. Sometimes, a good list-post or a few hundred words in a blurb is all you have to say on a subject.
So say it.
No One Likes a Smartypants.
Don’t try to sound intelligent. Don’t try to put on airs. Don’t try to make yourself out to be more awesome than you are.Don’t try to make them think you’re somebody you’re not.
Because in this hobby, we’re branded by two things above all else: our writing styles and our personalities. Both of which will determine whether you make it or have to take your ball and go home.
My point is that if you’re not a funny person, don’t try to be. If you’re not an analytical person, don’t try to be. If you’re not dry and snarky, don’t try to be. People stick with bloggers because they’re people. Because we like interacting with one another. So be personable, be friendly, tweet a few folks, and write like a human being.
For me, when I try to be dry and snarky, I come across as a dick. So I’m bubbly and friendly and happy as much as I can be. That’s who I am. It’s who I am on the internet, and it’s who I am in real life. My online persona is really just me–a heal-slinging, magic-using, robe-wearing, lightsaber-wielding,
better-looking version of me.
There are a lot of bloggers out there. And most of them, no one ever reads. Why not? Because they sound exactly like everyone else.
And you know what’s cool about you? You’re not just like everyone else. You don’t sound like anyone else. You have ideas I can’t have. You have thoughts on games that you need to share. So break away from the crowd and make people pay attention to you.
Just don’t do it by trying to be a writer. Because then you’ll get an F.
Know a newbie blogger? Send ’em our way! The Newbie Blogger Initiative is going on all month long! Don’t be a stranger!
Great post! I’m always looking for ways to improve my writing and I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to share.
Thanks, Burek. I always forget how scared I was to start out, and how much reading Matt’s “Purple Kodo” post on his blog helped me out. I thought the NBI was a great way to pay it forward.
Awesome stuff! This is easy advice to take, especially since I am not a writer and really don’t consider myself to be one. My pursuits are more mathematically linked and if I had my choice of doing a math problem that took up 5 pages, or to write an essay of 5 pages, I’d pick the math problem every time. So I hope I’m at least following most of this advice already. Still not sure why I started a blog, though…
Because you had something to say! That’s the reason I did. That, and I always wanted to be a columnist. 😛
I like the post, but can’t agree with the lesson. While simplicity is an admirable goal, why not aim high? Why not expand your vocabulary?
I don’t think anyone should dumb themselves down to cater to the lowest common denominator. Clarity can also be achieved with words longer than three syllables.
Why on earth would you want to make it harder for people to understand the point of your message?
Why on earth would you assume your readers require monosyllabic writing to understand the point of your message?
A writer’s craft is language. Why not strive to be an artisan? I suppose it depends what you’re after, but shying away from language because people “won’t understand” it seems like sacrificing art for page-views.
I suppose that’s where we disagree and differ the most. As an English professor–a literature professor mostly–I don’t see writing as art. I see it as craft. I don’t see the florid prose of Austen as being superior to the spare prose of Hemingway because she could put a polysyllabic word in every slot, while he never used a conjunction.
Writing is craft because the whole point is communication. You’re not dumbing down your work–you’re doing it well. Clarity isn’t provided through polysyllabic vocabulary, specificity is. There’s a difference, a vast difference.
However, if someone is just starting out–like my comp students or a newbie blogger–they don’t have their voice; they don’t know how to communicate. They don’t know the rules and subtleties between clarify and specificity. They eventually will. But until that point, striving for flawless communication is the highest goal they can achieve.
There’s definitely a time and place for scholarly “writerly” writing. I’d agree that blogs are better approached as conversations, though.
…but if you catch me writing long-winded treatises and using big words, well, that’s just how I am. Just ask my poor wife and extended family who occasionally remind me that a good quarter of what I say just blows past them, either because I’m using words they don’t know or referencing things they haven’t heard about.
I’m even feeling as though scholarly writing needs to be toned back. It’s so exclusive, so hard to understand, that the point of academica–the sharing and expansion of ideas–is lost in the quagmire of their vocabularies.
Ohhh, yes. One of my biggest complaints about education is the increasingly useless textbooks. They don’t teach, they lecture. They aren’t about educating, they are about looking smart and selling books.
I’m glad to be out of academia sometimes. I would love to go get more degrees because I love learning, but I find I can learn more going out and doing research than I can from most classes. I guess that means I got what I needed from school, though. 😉
There is a difference between unnecessarily flowery or ‘high brow’ wording and making word choices appropriate for the audience. Between trying to sound smart and those necessary to convey the proper meaning. Writing doesn’t have to be dumbed down, but it has to be appropriate for the audience. If you sound like a writer to your audience then you probably have not hit the proper level. The distinction is highly fluid.
Great post! I couldn’t agree with you more about suggesting simplicity to students because they do start out trying to write like writers. This usually creates an inability on their part to communicate ideas.
Also, I think that you’re very, very right about writing using your strengths. It’s important to be who you are in your writing.
I find it funny that you have a typo in your first paragraph. ^^
This is great advice. I better put away my thesaurus and stick to words people understand rather than ones that boost my ego.
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