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ON WRITING — SPAG and all that crap

From Google images
From Google images

Killer Writing and Editing tips

This is an excerpt from a guide to writing killer content for the web that was kindly sent our way. Although the focus is clear content writing (think blog posts, articles, advertising copy) instead of fiction,  the same principles apply. Step one was about generating ideas, which most folks around here can do anyway, so I left that out.

THE BEHIND THE SCENE DETAILS: STEP TWO WRITING STYLE TIPS

WRITING STYLE TIPS FOR KILLER CONTENT

Keep it direct, to the point, short, and focused.

In fiction, writers are always told to cut the backstory. The same goes for web content. Cut out extraneous details, and remember your reader has a very short attention span. They’re skimming the page, and reading from a screen. Don’t make it hard for them. Use short paragraphs, bold and headers throughout the text, and lean sentences.

Remember KISS?

Keep it Simple and Straightforward. Most folks write best with simple sentences and a strong focus on ideas. Don’t try to be fancy. If you don’t know what a semi-colon is, don’t worry. Straightforward ideas are fine. The focus is on sharing your killer ideas with your audience, not winning a poetry competition.

Don’t bury your ideas in jargon, and give concrete, real world examples of your ideas.

Remember my Coke vs Pepsi example? I’ll bet you did, because it’s a real world product you are familiar with and connect to. You remembered my ideas and developed an association with it. Bingo. My content worked.

This is not an academic term paper. Don’t hide behind academic prose, and third-person point of view to sound more important. Keep it simple, keep it real.

Earlier, I wrote: Intentionally obtuse writing is a real snore, it masks your ideas because the reader’s too busy parsing sentences and they lose track of the main point.

{Did you have to look up obtuse and parsing? Did the unfamiliar terms slow you down a little? What about an article full of ‘em? Would you want to read it? I think not. KISS, my friends.}

Keep one reader in mind when you’re writing – and write for a real person with real problems that you’re trying to help them solve.

Don’t write for a ‘theoretical’ person. If you’re in business, you work with and sell products and services to real people, not a demographic.

Keep at least one (or a couple) real life people in mind, and imagine yourself telling them all about your killer ideas. You’ll be able to clearly and succinctly tell them what they need to know.

I once knew a Chemistry PhD candidate who wrote his thesis in what his advisors called a ‘folksy style’ because he was writing to explain his ideas to his mom. It was the most readable piece of academic jargon I’d ever had the pleasure of encountering. I fully understood his ideas, and actually wanted to find out more. Boom. He nailed it.

You can too. Just keep your audience in mind and write simply. And be sure to edit.

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THE BEHIND THE SCENE DETAILS: STEP THREE EDITING ADVICE

Most people think of editing as little more than a check on spelling, grammar, and typos. Spell check does that. (sorta) Editing is so much more.

This is where you refine your ideas with you reader in mind. Help them access your key points with tight writing, clear ideas, and solid organization.

This is where you truly polish your content ‘til it shines.

Use HEADERS and bold throughout. (Help out those poor folks reading on a screen.)

Tighten language, cut, cut, cut.

And get a second reader.

Editing your own content is hard work. You need a fresh set of eyes to see your work impartially and give an external point of view. If you give yourself a break from the text for a couple days or a week, and then review it; it won’t seem so wonderful now, and all the little mstakes will pop out.

But it really helps if you have a second reader – a friend or partner – to check over your writing to keep an eye out for tpyos and overall clarity. (See what I did there?)

There are a million things you can ask your reader to look for. I suggest only two.

Ask your reader to highlight obvious mstakes and tpyos. (Did you get ‘em?)

Ask your reader if your ideas make sense and have a logical flow.

Then fix your work so it makes sense and there’s no obvious mstakes. (Unless they’re intentional.) Focus on ideas and clarity, don’t go bananas worrying about sentence structure. If you write simply and cleanly, things tend to solve themselves.

That said, I strongly encourage you to use White and Strunk’s classic guide, The Elements of Style. Their ideas – use direct language, keep it active, group related ideas, and cut excess verbiage still hold today.

The best piece of editing advice is to cut. Most folks over-write, and use too many filler words and stuff. Cut ‘em out. If you can say something in two words, use ‘em. Don’t use four instead. (I’m having too much fun with this.)

THE BEHIND THE SCENE DETAILS: STEP THREE EDITING ADVICE

EDITING CHECK LIST

Standard Canadian Apology: I’m sorry if these suggestions seem harsh, but you’d be surprised what serious cutting can do for your content.

– Cut the crap. Cut extra words, simplify phrases. Clarify your ideas. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, neither will your reader.

– Avoid multiple descriptors – use only one. KISS, and the focus on your main idea. Simplify language, break ideas down with real life examples.

– Use bold throughout the text especially for key terms that you need to define anyway

– Use headings that describe content so readers who are skimming can access your ideas. Aim for a descriptive heading every at least 500- 700 words or so.

– Break text into shorter paragraphs – i.e. 5-6 sentences max. It makes it so much easier for the contemporary reader to access your text.

– Aim for variety in sentences – long, short, simple, and a few complex. Bring it all in to give your reader a break. If you’re afraid of long sentences, no worries, my friend; quick and easy is sometimes the way to go.

– Aim for variety in words, but don’t make your reader reach for the dictionary. Do a doc search for words or phrases you commonly use, like ‘I mean that’ and cut and rewrite. I once edited a 1300 word doc with 15 ‘reallys’. That’s more than one per 100 words. Cut.

Check out Stephen King’s On Writing or the classic Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style for ideas on clarifying content and tightening your writing.

Here’s a link to a free version of The Elements of Style. Win!

https://faculty.washington.edu/heagerty/Courses/b572/public/StrunkWhite.pdf

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ADVICE FROM STRUNK AND WHITE’S THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

The Elements of Style table of content reads like a quick how-to guide. Use it, and look at your own and the work of others in this light.

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (excerpt)

ELEMENTARY PRINCIPLES OF COMPOSITION

 

  1. Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.

 

  1. As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence.

 

  1. Use the active voice. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous

than the passive.

 

  1. Put statements in positive form.

 

  1. Omit needless words.

 

  1. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.

 

  1. Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.

 

  1. Keep related words together.

 

  1. In summaries, keep to one tense.

 

  1. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

 

I love number 13 – omit needless words. ‘Nuf said.

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THE BEHIND THE SCENE DETAILS: STEP THREE EDITING ADVICE

EDITING GUIDELINES IN ACTION

Let’s look at my fave – cut the crap or #13 – omit needless words.

For example:

In mature markets, brands can rarely compete solely, primarily, or even predominately, on real functional value.

Which is it?

My version where the crap is cut:

In mature markets brands rarely compete solely on real functional value.

This is clearer and more direct.

But, I’d still flip it into the positive and direct forms:

Real functional value has little effect in mature markets. Brands compete based on perceived value…

Now you’re saying, please don’t fill my head with this grammar stuff. I won’t. I’ll just give some quick and dirty tips.

How to keep your writing positive and action-oriented.

Don’t tell me what something can’t do. Tell me what it can do instead. Got it?

Instead of

The vehicle ceased to move.

Try

The car stopped.

You’re telling me what the car’s doing. Don’t bother telling me what it’s not doing, unless you’re talking about stock markets crashing or failing, and even then, they’re doing something… just not what we want. If you do this your verbs will be stronger, tenses will be more immediate, and you’ll cut excess verbiage.

 

What’s passive voice?

Something to avoid like the plague, but creeps into business-speak as people try to sound important and official. (Sorry, but it’s true.)

Without talking nouns and verbs, basically, in passive voice the actor in a situation is buried in your sentence or missing completely. Passive sentences are vague, rambling, and annoying.

A bouquet of flowers was handed to the queen. {Who handed them?}

How about

The queen was presented with a bouquet of flowers. {Still not great}

Even better

The knight presented a bouquet of flowers to the queen.

See how much better direct language with specific details are? You want your reader to visualize what you’re talking about. In this case, the knight is the actor, giving flowers to the queen. Boom. We get it.

Passive voice is technically acceptable in many situations; however it kills your writing by making it overly complicated. Remember cognitive load? Don’t make your poor reader think about too many things at one. Readers don’t want to perform mental gymnastics figuring out who did what to whom, just it like it is.

Check this one out

Since the car was being driven by George at the time of the accident, the damages should be paid for by him.

Passive voice makes it sound like things were done by an unknown agent.

Mistakes were made. {We don’t know by who}

The queen was courted. {Still don’t know who}

 

HOW TO IDENTIFY PASSIVE VOICE

Evil little words to watch for: was, has, is, and by

A way to check for passive voice is to look for ‘was’ ‘has’ ‘is’ with actor missing or named after ‘by’ in your work. Your grammar check might help, or you could just search your doc for ‘was’ using Find and Replace functions.

Company X was overtaken in 1999, thus initiating the new model of ABC.

Client data is encoded by IT technicians.

The possibility of alternative cold and flu remedies have been examined for many years.

Ways to break this include starting your sentence with the actor. (You might need to figure out who or what the agent of action is.)

Your new sentence will be stronger, shorter, and more accurate. Win!

Company ABC took over X in 1999, thus initiating the new model of ABC.

IT technicians encode client data.

Medical researchers have examined the possibility of cold and flu remedies for many years.

But, as with all things in language – rules are made to be broken.

Passive voice might be used effectively if the actor is unknown or irrelevant.

Think scientific procedural stuff

The sodium hydroxide was dissolved in water. This solution was then titrated with hydrochloric acid.

Or if you’re talking about a general truth, such as ‘rules are made to be broken.’

So maybe passive voice isn’t all that bad after all.

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Now my friends, it’s up to you – send us what you got, and share it with the world. We want your weird and wonderful little ideas floating around Twisted Sister – We Want YOU!!

Be sure to check out more on the craft of writing back here. And don’t forget our New Releases and Greatest Hits – crank ‘em up and let ‘em roll.

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