Writing is imperative in life, and together with speech is the main thing that elevates humans as a species from the generic ape. Despite this, inefficient communication takes place on a daily basis. Think about that last lengthy WhatsApp message or email you had to scroll through twice just to clarify the point the author was trying to make. Working in science, this problem is amplified by the use of jargon; field-related terms that people enjoy using to make themselves sound smarter.
Writing is a means to get one’s point across to another person(s). You need it in all kinds of situations – selling products or oneself (advertisements, job applications), recording (history, data), informing (news), creating a following or a movement (politics, religion, environmentalism), capturing imagination (books, stories) and self-expression (blogs, Twitter, Facebook).
So are you an effective communicator? In this day and age, one is also not given much time to communicate. Since 2000, the average human attention span has dropped from 12s to 8s (which is shorter than a goldfish: 9s) . So how do you effectively capture and maintain the attention of your readers? Let me list the ways:
1. Make a visual impression
A whopping 65% of people are visual learners. This means that long paragraphs of complicated texts are prone to make your readers “zone-out”. Images and videos are often effective at capturing attention. Once you have the attention, don’t lose it by having long unending paragraphs. Space out your points into separate paragraphs and make it easily understandable. The use of bullet-points or lists are also effective means of getting points across. Stories/anecdotes are also somewhat visual as they create a scene in one’s mind and can be great hooks for capturing attention.
2. Give the reader what he/she wants
I used to struggle with blog posts, and sometimes still do! But one thing that helps me focus my content is pretending if I were the reader. What would I want to read about? This runs in parallel with writing. Writing is a form of learning. So I usually write about what I want to know more of. This forces me to research the topic of interest and formulate my own opinions. In the end, you need to cater your script to what the reader/buyer/employer wants.
3. Simplify but don’t be boring
People have different styles of writing, it’s important to keep your own style. At the same time it’s essential to be effective at getting the point across. A book that comes highly recommended is Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style”. It’s a classic which teaches you the “rules” of English. The entire book contents appear available on this site.
An excerpt: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
The book also recommends writing in the active voice which I highly employ i.e “She enthusiastically juiced the orange.” versus “The orange was juiced by her with great enthusiasm.” It sounds more impactful, doesn’t it? However, its good practice to vary sentence structures so you don’t bore the readers.
4. Different cultures, different styles
Just as we respect the behavioural norms of each culture, writing also has to be molded according to the culture of the target audience. I just found an interesting method of classifying cultural behaviour – the Lewis Model. Similarly, writing style is influenced by these different cultural characteristics. I found it interesting for example that in Germany, people detest self-praise. So when applying to rent an apartment for example, it would be unthinkable to write “We are friendly and pleasant people.” Chances are, that would only arouse suspicion! Same thing goes for when applying for jobs. It may be better to take a more aggressive and direct approach when applying for a job in America than for one in the UK/Germany. Asia is somewhere in between in my opinion.
5. Using fancy words
Yup try to avoid this. Not only does it come across as trying too hard, it may also be unfamiliar to the reader, burdening him/her with the effort of looking it up. Save the fancy words for novels, poems, and other “artistic” works of self-expression.
6. Coherent flow
Just as in a presentation, it helps to start a written script with an outline of what the article will be about (after your attention-grabbing hook). Main points are highlighted in the body, and at the end it is imperative to conclude well. I must admit I am not great at this but you can find some useful tips here from Elizabeth Soumya’s blogpost. The conclusion should ideally have an element of surprise but still be coherent with the rest of the article. Good methods are using quotes, startling statements, thought-provoking questions, stories, or a link back to the beginning.
7. Ask for opinions
Your view of your own writing is probably far more idealistic that it actually is. It definitely helps to ask people for their opinions on your written piece. Oftentimes, this leads to improvement and also learning moments that help guide your future writing style. Don’t protect your ego, expose it!
So when was the last time you’ve carefully scrutinized your own writing? Try it out, you may learn a thing or two.