AC.Byrd.E.001 Richard E. Byrd

AC.Byrd.E.001 Richard E. Byrd (Photo credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives)

And how to fix it!

OK, so maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but you know what I mean. Some people can put sentences together. Other people can write. It’s not the same thing. Grammar has rules, but writing is so much more. Writing is about rhyme and rhythm, it’s an art, and like all art, it’s about the effect it has on the consumer.

Most people recognize good writing when they read it, but because they assume writing is all about the rules of grammar and spelling, they think they should be able to do the same thing. The rules are easy. All you have to do is follow them.

The only problem is, it isn’t true, but we’ll get back to that.

My point is that a lot of people are dissatisfied with the standard of their own writing, but they needn’t be. There are three basic problems with the way most people approach writing, and all are easy to fix.

  1. Their writing is correct in every way, but stilted in style.
  2. Their subject is boring
  3. They expect too much.

An article isn’t a lecture and it’s not an academic paper. It’s a promotional tool. It won’t win a Pullitzer no matter how many weeks, days or hours your spend on it. A lot of people start writing in a formal style and the result is something that sounds stilted, just like an academic paper, but this isn’t a conference, this is the web.  What you need is something  informative, easy to read and friendly. Formal is right out.

The major difference between formal and informal writing is the use of passive language. If you spend any time reading about how to write for the web you’ll know that the best advice is to use something called the active voice—but what does that mean?
The bottom line is that if you write in what’s called the active voice you’ll sound more friendly and a lot less pompous. Writing which uses passive forms always sounds more formal because the sentences are put together in a way which is quite different to the way we would say them.

Warning – you may want to slip this bit ‘cos I’m going to talk about subjects, objects and verbs and stuff. Just skip down to the next bit of highlighted text.

Here’s a sample:

Admiral Byrd flew over the South Pole

is the normal way to tell someone about Admiral Byrd’s exploits back in 1934. It’s a nice simple sentence. Subject?  Admiral Byrd. Verb? To fly. Object? The South Pole.

But if, rather than speaking, you were writing about Admiral Byrd in an Academic paper, you might say 

‘The flight over the South Pole was carried out by Admiral Byrd’

Subject? The flight over the South Pole. Verb? To carry out. Object? Admiral Byrd.

A nice dynamic verb like ‘flew’ is downgraded to  ‘carried out.’  and all the excitement of the event disappears. Of course the first version is factual nonsense, unless Admiral Byrd suddenly grew wings, but factual or not, it is what you would say, and for the web, that’s more appropriate. If your writing is boring (and you don’t think it should be) take a look at the verbs.  You can do a lot with verbs. Honest.

In passive sentences it is the thing which is receiving the action which is the subject of the sentence.

The children were educated by a tutor. Subject – the children
A tutor educated the children. Subject?  A tutor.
The second is the active form.

But you don’t want to know that. What’s important, is how you fix the problem, and the good news is that it’s easy.

Welcome back 🙂

Write what you think you would say. Use contractions.  And start sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’. Break the rules you were taught in school and your writing will be more natural and contain more of your personality.

But don’t go too far. Sentences with, like, too many, like, ‘likes’ in, might be less than clear, man!

Practice speaking your articles (you could even use text to speech software) or just imagine, as you write, that you’re talking to a good friend; what you write will be more natural, more you and much easier to read.

Think also about what you’re saying. If you approach the exercise from the customer/reader point of view, trying to provide information the customer or reader wants to have, the result will be better. If you’re an expert at what you do you probably know what your reader needs to know, but does your reader? There are always a lot more people who dabble in a subject, think about getting started, try it out for a while, and never ever go into depth, than become informed. There are a lot more people looking for basic information about any subject, than there are looking for detailed, expert help.

You may know how to overcome the difficulties of underwater basket weaving, but your reader doesn’t want to know that, they want to know the simple things; what is it, what tools do I need, is it expensive, does it take long, is it fun, can I make money with it.  By all means publish articles for those who need in depth knowledge, but remember that most of your readers probably don’t.

Accept that you are not perfect. Proof reading is something you must do, but it need not go on for days. One good way to check for typos  is to start at the end of your article and work backwards. Because the sentences don’t make sense that way round it’s easier for your brain to spot misspelled words. When reading forwards you’ll often read what you expect to see rather than what is actually there. And if you publish an article with a typographical error? Too many and the article may be rejected by a directory, so you revise it and submit again. The sky does not fall. Perfection is not required.

If you find yourself agonizing over the precise construction of one particular sentence, get rid of it and move on. Practice is important, so get the articles out there and invite feedback. You learn by doing.

So what’s the main reason people suck at writing articles? Well, to go back to what I was saying right at the beginning, sometimes the problem  is practice. You won’t get better by theorizing. You’re not a writer until you write.

So what ever your problem is, don’t let it hold you back. Get it written, get it out there. Take a good hard look, and do better next time. Procrastination is not just the thief of time, it’s a death sentence for success.

Never procrastinate today, always put it off until tomorrow.

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