Adrift in a Sea of Writing Tips, Two Tips to Cling to

If you’ve ever produced written content, a process once called “writing,” and you wondered how to produce better content or how to write better, a trip to the internet is all you need.

There you will find a staggering assortment of tips and “hacks” to start you on the path to literary immortality. Before you depart, though, take heed. Like many a trip into the dark heart of internet advice, this is a journey fraught with peril.

The sad fact is that the tips are not always your friends. The situation is covered by the First and Second Laws of Internet Writing Advice.

The First Law: For every tip, there’s an equal and opposite tip.

The Second Law: The equal and opposite tip may be just as good as the one that you’re supposed to follow.

For example, consider this very common recommendation: Avoid the passive voice.

Is that always a good idea? There’s nothing incorrect about the passive voice. It’s not a grammatical error. Instead, it’s decried for its weakness, its lack of energy, its flabbiness. But sometimes it serves a purpose.

In some cases, the passive voice actually makes for simplicity. It’s simple enough to say, for example, “The site was hacked more than 120 times.” It doesn’t help matters to make this active for its own sake. That choice would give us “Hackers hacked the site more than 120 times.”

It would be different if you knew who those hackers were. “Hackers from another planet hacked the site more than 120 times.” That gives us some useful additional information. We’d like to know who’s doing all that hacking. Often, though, the point of using the passive voice is that you don’t know or that it’s not important or, in nefarious cases, that you’d like to keep things to yourself.

That must have been Richard Nixon’s rationale for going passive, but “Mistakes were made” didn’t save the American president from personal disgrace. He couldn’t accept responsibility by saying, “I made mistakes,” so perhaps he took some comfort in the passive voice. Of course, no one was buying what he was selling, but only the passive voice delivered the message he tried to send.

For another example, consider the equally common recommendation to use simple declarative statements in your writing as much as you can. It worked for Hemingway. It will work for you. The direct approach is often the product of a writer’s roots in the world of the daily newspaper, a medium that wants to get to the point as quickly as possible.

And while the style works for writing about news, it’s not always best in other contexts, especially when overdone. It’s often more interesting to mix things up a little, and there’s always the risk that too much declarative simplicity will yield a Hemingway parody. That was good.

Newspaper writing has given us another common tip, one that stems from the medium’s dependence on the physical limitations of the printed page and the exigencies of newspaper publishing. News stories are always at risk of being cut to make room for other stories, and editors cut from the bottom up. As a result, we are advised to put the most important stuff first. Leave the secondary details for the end, where they can be removed without hurting the story.

Sometimes, though, those secondary details are the most interesting part of the story. On the internet, space is not a concern. You won’t run out of pixels. You’re free to structure your story as you please.

While this doesn’t license pointless rambling, it does free you from rigorous adherence to a template applicable to an entirely different medium. If you want to open with an interesting, if unimportant, part of the story, you can. Perhaps you’ll catch the reader’s eye. You’ll get to the “important” stuff later, and no harm done.

What about the idea that you should avoid jargon?

Even if you share our entirely justified objection to “content production” as a synonym for “writing,” jargon has its place, especially when writing for particular audiences. If your subject is technical and you’re writing for professionals, using the jargon of your industry has two worthwhile purposes. First, it serves as shorthand that people in the field understand, saving you from wasting energy on unnecessary translations into “plain English.” Second, jargon can act as a signifier. It shows that you are an insider in the field. It shows that you are comfortable using the language that the experts use. It’s evidence that you’re an expert, too. Jargon, used appropriately and well, enhances the writer’s credibility.

If most tips fall into the category of “things that sometimes work and sometimes don’t,” are there any tips that are always worth following?

We’re glad you asked, because there are two.

1. Just get started.

Please don’t misunderstand. This is not a tip aimed at overcoming procrastination. That’s a subject unto itself. Instead, this tip is meant to get you to the point where you actually have some words on the page. Until that happens, you don’t know which tips you need to follow. Do your sentences go on and on? Does each one contain 18 clauses separated by 36 commas? If so, you’re either Henry James or you need to tighten things up. Once you have some work in front of you, you’ll find out which tips matter and which you can ignore.

2. Read your work aloud.

This is the single best way to tell if your writing works. You’ll know if what you’ve written makes sense. You’ll spot the awkward constructions. Even the grammatical errors will pop right out. If something sounds a little off, chances are that something is a little off. Your ears can tell you things your eyes cannot.

So take all tips – except those two, of course – with several grains of salt. Some are useful some of the time. If only two are useful all of the time, at least those two will never steer you wrong. And if you’d rather turn the writing over to someone else, give us a holler. We’re here for you.

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