How to Write so People Read
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw.
We assume that when we write or speak others understand us. George Bernard Shaw knew better.
For example, here’s a story featured on Thought Catalog, originally from Reddit; “My Mom really liked the fried noodles that were served with soup at this Asian restaurant. She asked what they were called, and decided to tell everyone about the “Kwan Chi noodles.” It was a good while before she realized the waitress was just saying “Crunchy Noodles” with an accent.”
Everyone has different experiences, jargon, knowledge bases—and accents! The exact message we send is never the exact message that’s received.
The following 5 principles of writing will make your audience more likely to receive your writing as you intended. And that begins with capturing their attention.
Attention is Scarce
“Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after.”—Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
Principle #1: Be engaging.
People avoid what’s difficult. ‘Easy’ is our default choice. Engaging writing is easy to read.
If people have the choice of watching James Franco’s latest art-house film or watching a Pixar film—almost everyone gets out the popcorn and settles down for some attention-grabbing animation. One is challenging, the other engaging. I know I can quote more Nemo than Franco.
People want to read engaging posts—and doing what you want is easy.
For example, check out this Esquire article by A.J. Jacobs, ‘I Think You’re Fat,’—I couldn’t stop reading it. Easy.
To engage your readers and make your writing easy to read you need to apply tactics.
Warning: tactics are mentally taxing—for you to apply them. And that’s exactly what you want. By doing the hard mental work of writing engaging prose, it becomes easy mental work for everyone reading it.
- Use short sentences.
- Summarise with lists.
- Titles are the lead domino—use them to capture attention.
- Highlight key points with bold and italics.
- Write in an active rather than passive tense. For example, I’m going for a run is active, while I went for a run is passive.
- “Omit needless words.”—Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.
- Details drive attention. Be specific.
- Edit, edit again, and then edit some more. And remember to edit.
Since attention is scarce. We don’t immediately begin reading a blog post, we…
Scan Before Reading
“People are hurried. The average person worth cultivating has too much to read… they are not going to read your business talk unless you make it worth their while and let the headlines show it.”—Claude Hopkins.
Principle #2: Show readers why they should read your article.
There are hundreds of millions of blog posts. You can’t read them all. As you read a book’s blurb before reading it, you scan an article to determine whether it’s useful and interesting.
When someone scans your article in 15 seconds they should recognise that it is valuable.
Check out this article. A quick scan and you have a clear understanding of it.
- Use large, easy to read font.
- Use headings and subheadings to outline your article.
- Pictures and infographics communicate quickly.
- Use short paragraphs—it makes your post look less intimidating and easier to read.
When scanning blog posts, people will not respond to an idea they’ve already seen because…
People Respond to Novelty
“A lot of why I do something is just the novelty of the experience.”—Edward Norton.
Principle #3: Blog differently.
Our brains are hardwired to react to what’s new. The more unexpected a blog post, the more people read it.
To be different, you must either write about a new topic, write about an existing topic in a fundamentally different way, or tailor an existing idea to a new group of readers.
For example, Buzzsumo identified the most shared article of 2016 as “New Alzheimer’s treatment fully restores memory function”. New and novel information was the most shared.
- Leverage ideas from unrelated fields.
- Develop a unique voice.
- Offer an opinion. People are looking for answers, so do your homework and provide an answer.
People will respond to novelty, but don’t confuse novelty with complexity since…
Readers Don’t Know What You Know
“Two monologues do not make a dialogue.”—Jeff Daly.
Principle #4: Write from your reader’s perspective.
You know why your post matters. You know why it’s useful. Your readers don’t. So write from your reader’s perspective.
When writing about a complex subject, writing from your readers perspective becomes especially important. For example, consider this passage on a complex idea, autocatalyzing systems, from The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman:
“Autocatalysis is a concept that comes from chemistry: it’s a reaction whose output produces the raw materials necessary for an identical reaction.
An Autocatalyzing System produces the inputs necessary as a by-product of the previous cycle, Amplifying the cycle.
Autocatalysis is a Compounding, positive, self-reinforcing Feedback Loop—the system will continue to grow until the system changes in a way that produces less output.”
While I still had to read it three times before I understood it, the clear language (aside from the term autocatalysis) makes it possible for anyone without background knowledge in chemistry and business systems to understand the concept.
- Use analogies to explain new concepts. Analogies take something people already understand and apply it in a new way.
- Use concrete imagery over abstract ideas.
- Get someone (or better yet, multiple people) to read over your post—if it is not crystal clear to them then it won’t be clear to your readers.
When writing from your reader’s perspective, we must recognise that the most recent idea they read is the one that stays in their mind…
People Remember the Last Thing They Read
“Good writing finishes strong.”—Steven Pinker.
Principle #5: Finish strong.
By the time a reader reaches the end of your post, they’ve forgotten your witty headline. They remember the end.
For example, the last line of the 1995 film The Usual Suspects with Kevin Spacey is most memorable… “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. And like that… he is gone.”
This concept of finishing strong is highlighted in The Tim Ferriss Show by chess prodigy, Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and tai chi push hands world champion, Josh Waitzkin. After skiing with the great downhill ski racer, Billy Kidd, Josh was given a valuable insight:
Firstly, ask yourself, what are the three most important turns of a ski run? Billy, having asked this question to many people, says most people answer the beginning “because of momentum” or the middle “because it’s the hardest”.
Yet Billy describes the three most important turns as the three before you get on the lift. The last three turns. Josh notes, “when your last three turns are precise, then what you’re internalizing on the lift ride up is precision.”
This applies to our writing in two ways. Firstly, our readers will internalise the last thing they read—our final paragraph. If you finish with strong sentences, you will be remembered as a strong writer.
Secondly, we internalise the last sentences we wrote into our subconscious. If we finish with sloppy sentences, we will be internalising sloppy writing. It is better to end with precision, so precision becomes our default mode. This concept echoes Hemingway’s advice; “Stop while you are going good”.
Finishing strong is important for your reader and for developing your writing.
- Finish with a quote.
- Bring the post full circle with the conclusion.
- Don’t finish with a boring summary.
- Explain how the ideas mentioned can have a wider impact.
The conclusion should be memorable, interesting and actionable…
Sun Tzu realised that “All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved”. From this, we can recognise that it is more useful to understand the principles than the tactics.
Tactics are situation specific, but principles can be applied in multiple domains. The tactics mentioned above are specifically for writing, but you can use the principles for all forms of communication from conversation to film-making.
Focusing on tactics will help, but never forget the principles which they serve. The five principles of engaging, demonstrating, using novelty, writing from your audience’s perspective and finishing strong are the keys to communication.
As the poet William Butler Yeats wrote; “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.”