Writing is something everyone does every day. Shopping lists, work emails, and even Whatsapp messages are examples of writing we all do, all of the time. So why are we daunted about writing something longer? Perhaps because of knowing it will be read and dissected by an audience.
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser
William Zinsser was a journalist, author, and writing instructor at Yale. His book On Writing Well is a classic among writers and has sold nearly 1.5 million copies in the 40 years since it was published. It’s one of the first books I recommend to anyone seeking to improve their writing. Zinsser packs several practical lessons into his book, including this gem:
“All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative?–?good old-fashioned storytelling?–?is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug.”
Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips
Ernest Hemingway never codified his insights on writing into a book, but he did share his thinking on the topic in commissioned articles; letters to his agents, publishers, and friends; and through his novels. Ernest Hemingway on Writing is a collection of his insights on the craft of writing, and includes several practical and inspiring tips.
“You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across?–?not to just depict life?–?or criticize it?–?but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it.”
I’m one of those people who feels bad if I miss anything (sometimes known as ‘fear of missing out‘). When it comes to reading, I definitely feel this. If something further ahead catches my eye, I can’t keep reading until I go back and catch up on the parts I missed.
I’ve actually realized recently that there is a kind of freedom in giving up that feeling of needing to see everything. Sometimes, it’s okay to skip parts. Especially if they’re not relevant to you. Readers on the web skim for a reason. In fact it has almost become our default way of reading, as this eye-tracking study shows:
When we’re reading on the web, we’ll often find handy stuff to help us do this, like subheadings or bold text. These can help us skim through and get the gist of an article quickly, so we can decide whether to go back and reread the parts we skipped.
One of the benefits of skipping over sections is that you’re not overloading your brain with irrelevant information, so the info that is going in can be processed more easily. Hopefully, this method can help us to remember more of what we read!
All the information we have available only increases our stress levels and diminishes available time. We consume much more than we create, we read much more than we think, and it should be the other way around. We have to make sure we consume the things that truly matter to us, but only so that we have time to create something that matters to someone else. – Roberto Estreitinho
One of the results of this self-examination — for that is what the writing of this book amounts to — is the confirmed belief that one should read less and less, not more and more…. I have not read nearly as much as the scholar, the bookworm, or even the ‘well-educated’ man — yet I have undoubtedly read a hundred times more than I should have read for my own good. Only one out of five in America, it is said, are readers of ‘books.’ But even this small number read far too much. Scarcely any one lives wisely or fully.
To speak without shame about books we haven’t read, we would thus do well to free ourselves of the oppressive image of cultural literacy without gaps, as transmitted and imposed by family and school, for we can strive toward this image for a lifetime without ever managing to coincide with it.
Keep it tight
Never use 20 words where five will do. You might like to wax lyrical, but that does not mean your would-be audience wants to read it. Like simplicity, brevity is key to good writing. As Emily Newton-Smith, marketing manager for Koru Kids’ home nursery says:
Newton-Smith recommends one exercise where writers remove as many words from a sentence as possible. Afterwards, it should all still make sense. While you can always put words back if you want, using the fewest possible is a good rule to stick by, she says.
In a meta-analysis of the Semrush SEO Writing Assistant data, we found articles that are scored highly in terms of SEO tend to have high readability. Having sentences and words that are too long and complex is a common trait for low-scoring articles.
Working to maximize readability is one of the best pieces of advice that Amarachi Moses, a copywriter based in Lagos, Nigeria, has ever received. She recommends writing shorter sentences with enough spacing between them.
Concise sentences are key to improving the readability of your content. Of course, you should aim to have more readable content, but readability levels will differ depending on your target audience, their goals and your message.
For example, a physics professor reading an article on quantum mechanics would expect a more complex text. After all, the article is related to their area of expertise and needs to convey specific information. That same physics professor would almost certainly want a simpler, more readable text if they were reading a listicle on comfortable hiking boots.
Pro tip: Use SEO Writing Assistant to track and improve your readability score for each content piece. This will help you boost engagement and improve user experience. It’ll also be useful for maintaining a consistent tone of voice.
It can be useful to assign a word count to each section or idea you’ll work on. For example, you should try breaking up articles into 200-word bits. That way you focus on getting across a point in a fixed number of words.
Be open to criticism
Writers are known for being soft-skinned, so try not to take feedback personally. It is not that you are a bad writer. But perhaps someone with more experience can employ a sharper turn of phrase, or cut out some flabby prose. According to Joseph Saunders of INFUSEmedia:
One of the key aspects of becoming a better writer is being open-minded to criticism from others. Outside perspectives can be really useful for helping you grow and making sure you don’t get trapped in your own style.
Joseph Saunders of INFUSEmedia
If you do not have access to an editor, or are unable to take a writing workshop, look around for more experienced friends and colleagues. Alternatively, another professional writer may be free to cast a careful eye over your content.