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On Writing: Back to the Basics

Your readers will have different backgrounds. Proper communication relies on your being able to write at a level that your target audience can understand.

Tip 1:  Know your audience.

Seriously, make a mental image of the person you want reading your blog and write for them. Are they an elder college professor who likes video games? Are they a high school student big on drama club?  Maybe soccer moms? Tweens that spend all time texting their besties? Tailor your writing style for each of them. Avoid using collegiate philosophy vocabulary on old high school students if you want to be understood. Similarly writing the same way a tween texts would be annoying to read to almost anyone.

Tip 2: Vocabulary

Be sure to use words that instill passion in whatever your audience is interested in. You want your writing to make that college prof vividly remember how awesome it was playing Galaga at the arcade the summer he was 12. You want him to remember keeping his stack of quarters lodged between the player 1 and player 2 buttons and the sound them dropping into the machine. That soccer mom? Maybe she was a soccer player herself and is reliving her past glory through her kids. Make her remember the smell of the turf or burning sensation from the icy air at early morning practice.

Tip 3: Style

Deflate it. No, really. If you’re ignoring my first two tips and writing something for a general audience, then short sentences are good. Short sentences made up of small words are even better. You may think you’re a genius (and you might be) but everyone else isn’t.  This may sound weird or odd but it greatly jacks up readability by others.

How do I measure readability? I’m glad you asked! I love measuring things. I makes them easier to improve on. Go find a site that can rate text on the Flesch Kincaid scale. You can find two here: (http://read-able.com) and (https://readability-score.com/).  The scale runs from 0-100 where 0-30 is post grad and 90-100 is your average 11 year old. Write your page and then rate the copy with one of the tools and compare. This page rates about a 75 which drops it in the realm of middle school level.  If you’re interested, you can read more about the FK scale here: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flesch–Kincaid_readability_tests).

Tip 4: Edit Ruthlessly

This one is simple (ha!) in theory but a pain to implement. Make every word on the page earn its place. Instead of writing something like ‘the automotive vehicle, after having broken free from inertia, proceeded to move along the course of the mound in a generally  downward direction’ try ‘the car rolled down the hill’. The FK difference between the two lines is 32.7 versus 115.  This ties in with voice and style above.

Next consider any given sentence in the paragraph. Think about what it actually does or doesn’t contribute towards moving your main point forward. If it isn’t rock solid, is fluff, or you’re unsure about it, rewrite it or kill it. Kill things liberally.

Now let’s play a bit:

We’re going to use the sentence from tip 4 and edit. Let’s assume you don’t want to say ‘the car rolled down the hill’. I wrote: “the automotive vehicle, after having broken free from inertia, proceeded to move along the course of the mound in a generally  downward direction.”

You can start by nuking ‘automotive vehicle’ because who actually writes like that in other than in safety and legal documents? Car is probably the best choice here, but if you don’t want to use ‘car’ try ‘automobile’.

The phrase ‘after having broken free from inertia’ is also lame. Why did it break free? Was it rear-ended by another car? Did the road underneath it ice up letting the car slide instead of roll? All it tells us is that the car is no longer stationary. We can just drop it and the sentence doesn’t suffer. So now we have ‘The automobile proceeded to move along the course of the mound in a generally downward direction’.

There’s still some editing needed there. My first beef is with the word ‘mound’. Almost no-one calls a hill a mound in American english. And even then people would say something like ‘a mound of leaves’ which realistically is ‘a pile of leaves’. So, let’s just call a mound a hill and be done with it.

Next up, we pick on ‘proceeded to move along the course’. First up, you might move along the course of something if it’s a planned route like “He moved slowly along the course set out by the race committee”. We can skip along the course altogether in this instance because it doesn’t contribute enough to earn its space on the page.    

And finally, ‘in a generally downward direction’. This isn’t that bad. A car could technically roll up a hill, or even across a hill, so the direction helps. If we’re going to simplify we could just say ‘in a downward direction’. The word generally can just be dropped.

So, how about ‘the automobile moved along the hill in a downward direction’? It’s still a bit off for normal english, but it would work if you really don’t want to use the other phrase. But like I said before, go for simple and concise. The car rolls down the hill works just fine so I’d stick with that.

I’m still working at this myself.  These tips were painfully learned after having to review and pick apart a decades worth of my own blog posts for a class. If you read some of my very early blog posts you’ll find evidence of where I fail at tips 2 through 4. Tip 1 I usually was ok with, but that’s only because I was writing for myself. I wrote to keep the information readily available. Outside readership was gravy.  While probably not the worst way to generate blog posts, I’m pretty sure if I’d had this advice 15 years ago my blog would be very different today.