I wanted to put a catchy introductory paragraph here—something to really suck the readers in and make them want to read this whole post. But I couldn’t think of anything, so let’s just get down to business here. A lot of blog posts are poorly written. A lot of my blog posts are poorly written, if we are being honest here. After a few years of being a reluctant blogger here are a few tips I can pass along.
Get rid of the bullshit
In the book On Writing Well, William Zinsser says the key to writing well is to get rid of clutter; this is a nicer way of saying get rid of all the wordy bullshit in your writing. Most blog posts are full of clutter. Some blog posts are the literary equivalent of walking into a hoarder’s house.
How do you get rid of clutter in your writing? When you have created a workable draft, let it sit for a few days and then go back to it and cut the word count down by at least a third, maybe more, this will be a good start in getting rid of the clutter. With writing, less is more.
Use short sentences
Use words that are clear and concise. Sentences should rarely ever start with words that soften your argument. Avoid starting sentences with words and phrase like “I think” and “so.” Cut any words that do not serve a purpose from your sentences. The word “very” rarely serves a purpose in a sentence, use it sparingly.
Never use a long word when a shorter word will do.
Avoid using tautologies (words that mean the same thing such as “the honest truth” or “completely devoid.” )
In Dune, Frank Herbert writes:“Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife—chopping off what's incomplete and saying: 'Now, it's complete because it's ended here.’" 1 Get good with the knife. Apply it to your writing and cut away the bullshit.
Find your own voice
This sounds like the kind of bullshit advice given out by some high school guidance counselors, but it is true. Don’t try to write like someone else does. I swear too much in real life (but I’m trying to do that less now that we have a two-year-old who repeats everything she hears) and the occasional bit of swearing makes it into my writing. You don’t have to swear, in fact, you probably shouldn’t, but you do have to be true to yourself - write how you write. Unless you suck at writing and then you should probably write like someone else does.
Learn to use the active voice
“The patient shit on the gurney,” is a better sentence than “the gurney was shit on by the patient.” Use the active voice when writing to keep things interesting. The passive voice is the style of dry academic papers and studies. While the passive voice is more professional the writing feels dull and boring. In the active voice the subject performs an action. In the passive voice the subject is acted upon by the verb. If you are doing scientific writing, then writing in the passive voice should be considered, as it is viewed as being more objective and professional. Using the active voice in my writing is something that I still struggle with.2When I finish a first draft, going back through it and changing sentences from the passive voice to the active voice as part of my editing process.
Follow the basic rules of grammar
Know when to use a comma and when to use a semi-colon. Figure out the interplay between punctuation and quotation marks. Consider using Grammarly or some other editing tools if you are unsure. Unless you’re sending a text message, the ideal number of exclamation points to use in an article is zero. Know the difference between an em dash, an en dash and a hyphen. Using an Oxford comma is a stylistic choice, although many people have passionate feelings about this issue, others do not give a fuck about the Oxford comma.4,5
In some cases, the rules are confusing, with the answer depending on the style of writing you are using – book titles are an example of this. In the AP format book titles are in quotations, but the Chicago Manual of Stylesays to use italics for book titles. Unless you are using a typewriter never underline book title. If you are unsure of which style to use, ask the people who will be publishing your writing what they prefer or if they have submission guidelines. Blogs are the Wild West of writing and rarely have rules, just try to follow the basic laws of grammar when writing for a blog.
Use lots of paragraphs. Break that shit up. Some people do not like their food touching on a plate; I don’t like my ideas touching. A paragraph should be long enough to discuss one idea and no longer.
Have a throughline and stick to it.
The throughline is the main point of your piece. Anything that does not further the throughline gets cut from the piece. If there is no point to the piece, step away from it. People often tell me they want to write, but they don’t know what to write about. If you don’t know what you want to write about then you have no business writing. If you cannot answer the questions, what and so what then ditch the piece.
Look up the tricky stuff
Remembering when to use affect or effect is hard for me. Is a person bear naked or bare naked when they cannot bear (or bare?) weight on a leg while bearing (or baring?) down? As much as I try to commit these things to memory, I always need to look them up.
Kill your darlings
If you want to write well, you must be prepared to kill your darlings—cutting out all the bits that you think are great, but they don’t contribute to the strength of the article. I had a several paragraphs in this piece about what it is like being a writer, the hard work involved, then endless process of revisions and editing and failure, and it was a good paragraph, but it needed to be killed because it did not further the piece.
Have a strong conclusion
You should wrap up your post with a strong conclusion that summarizes everything nicely.
Writing well is a painful process of stripping away things. If you should manage to write something decent and publish it somewhere, be prepared for the possibility that no one will read it anyway. I am sure that I violated several of the rules I proposed here but in (unpaid) writing, great is the enemy of good. You can drive yourself crazy trying to ensure that everything in a piece is perfect. Try to write in a way that shows you sort of understand English and cutting all the wordy bullshit out of your posts is a good starting point.
1. The use of double quotations is dependent on where you live, the British do it slightly different.
2. For example, this sentence. It would be a better sentence if it read that I still struggle to use the active voice when writing.
3. I have been incorrectly using a hyphen in many of my previous posts—I should have been using an em dash instead.
5. I didn’t really look up formatting or subscripts. I guess I should have but I think they work well enough that you can figure out the numbers go to a thing down here.