The newspaper and internet deliver a long stream of articles to my brain, and a good deal of my daily aggravation. Sometimes it’s the contents, but more often it is the writing itself. Where are the editors when the ad got approved that said, “The Ten Commandments–For Two Weeks Only.” Really? I thought they were a lot older. Or are we being told they are about to expire? Equally inadequate was the “Save money every month in 2012″ that said, “Save the expense of the State Fair by getting free tickets.” No word on how or where. No app, no hint of how one makes it happen.
So, because I care about writing, here are 10 tips to make your readers put down their voodoo doll of you, pierced with a pencil:
1.Use “I statements” in reviews rather than assuming you speak for the world. If you are writing a review of a book, a movie, a CD you like (or dislike), simply state your opinion. “I like this movie because it made me feel happy” is much better than “this movie is a must-see because it will make you feel young again.” You have a right to your taste, just don’t expect me to have your emotions or reactions.
2. Reduce the snark, increase the reasons. Hipster ennui is all the rage right now, but save it for speaking so you can add ironic emphasis and eye rolls. When you are describing something you dislike, use simple words and straightforward language. Make sure your reasons are clearly thought out. “It was bogus,” is not as useful as, “It promised to help me lose 10 pounds in two days, but although I followed directions, I gained half a pound.”
3. If you are writing a how-to article, include the details of how to. My biggest crazy-maker of 2011–how-to articles that don’t give instructions, directions, steps, or assumptions. Just a few nights ago I heard a financial expert tell us that if we haven’t saved enough for retirement to “find a job and even if you have to move out of state, stay in that job for at least 10 more years.” No tips on how to find a job (locally, much less out of state), move from one state to another without a substantial savings account, or keep a job for 10 years without getting let go.
4. Avoid cliches, and be specific.This is a corollary to #3. Had the financial
expert said, “Network your way into that out-of-state job,” she would have hit the moron trifecta–not enough information, not enough specific information, and a cliché like “network” without further explanation.
5. Use a map, then show us the map. Articles that describe how district lines have changed for voters and don’t show a map create instant confusion and aggravation. A map solves a lot of problems before they start.
6. Instructions, assembly, and before-and-after stories require illustrations or photography. I know it’s expensive and you have to get copyright permission. That’s what writers do. If I don’t know what the finished product looks like, I won’t assemble it correctly.
7. Use professional illustrators or photographers. I know you can use your iPhone, but there is a skill in product photography or assembly illustrations. You probably don’t have it. Get an expert. In the field.
8. Know the difference between a celebrity, a hero and an expert. Use each appropriately. A celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous, but is almost never a subject matter expert. A hero is someone who has behaved in a way that most of us would not–brilliantly, bravely. Sports figures are not automatically heroes, not matter how much money they make. An expert is someone who knows a great deal about a specific topic, even if that person is not a celebrity.
9. If you are writing your own videos, mention the objective first. Or have it on a card you hold up. I know you want to tell us your name, and your company name and the name of the cat on your desk, and then tell us how long you have been doing your [art, music, construction], and where you lived when you were 6 years old, but by that time I’ve lost the will to live. This is more useful, “This tutorial will show how to do free-form stitching. It’s not a step-by-step, but you’ll see lots of my examples, and I’ll demonstrate the technique.” Please make sure you know the difference between a tutorial (I’ll learn how to do it) and a demonstration (I’ll know you know how to do it really well).
10. Check your ego at the door. I know you are an expert. I am not. That is why I am reading your article or watching your video. Making me feel dumb, being patronizing or condescending will not make me love you. It will make me feel dumber. And although I am dumb, I know how to walk away. Fast.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing. She occasionally falls into despair.