Are you still #learning? I am. It is a delight to look at each day and the learning possibilities. Triggered by a question asked about how blogging was different to other forms of writing and how we need to constantly learn and adapt.
I have scribbled and played with words since boyhood in the 1960s. My mother lent me a typewriter when I was about 13, which I had to rebuild to make it work properly. I had typing lessons when 17, so can type with all fingers.
Landing my first job at the tender age of 19, led to a lifetime of writing to earn my living. I have written ever since in one way or another. For many years I wrote computer programs, and mine were always the best documented. After that, I started writing specifications, project reports and justifications. My greatest skill was writing those business reports. It is an under appreciated skill or art form. My university days were during my late 30s and early 40s, once I had some life skills behind me.
Publishing a blog was something I first did in 2003 or 2004. Pity, I forget the name but also have little desire to rediscover it, but I am sure it is still untouched on Blogger somewhere, if only I could remember the email address and password used.
To date, I have penned more than 1,000 articles on a variety of sites and garnered more than a million views. That is something I am proud of. But, at the same time, I am still learning. Lessons are sometimes hard. Often you take years to learn them, instead of days.
When face to face with a person, I have always understood that puzzled frown someone gives when reading something I wrote. It usually means I have not adequately explained something. When you are working with other people it is easy to get feedback, they will usually tell you what they like or dislike. One aspect of business based writing is that there is always feedback, often too much especially the unhelpful variety. Some of the feedback is best ignored, but other corrections need inclusion, despite the looming deadline. Often the bosses words are the loudest and demand a response.
The person who one day told me, “loved the use of the dangling participle.” That made me very curious. I knew what a dangling participle was — a word intended to modify a noun that is not actually used within the text. But, I could not find where I had made this mistake. Clearly I had outsmarted myself. But this is the type of feedback you rarely get with on-line publications. I am still #learning.
On-line Writing — A Different Skill?
Writing on-line is an altogether different skill. Even with the social web it is not possible to see facial expressions and discuss things with people as I used to, face-to-face, in business.
Firstly, with blogs, you may or may not get comments. The fact that you don’t receive any comments, isn’t a sign that your work was not well received. I have often received comments on Facebook saying how they loved what I said, but no comments on the original post. This week, I had a very detailed comment on Facebook stating how they enjoyed what I had written and how helpful it was to the reader, as they shared my Facebook post. A pity Facebook comments are not recorded on your WordPress post.
Secondly, you may or may not get views. There seems little correlation between writing quality and the number of views a piece gains. One piece I wrote on a general writing site had thousands viewing it, yet when I looked back at the article I used to kick myself for the errors that I had made. I later cleaned it up and published it on another site (after removing the original) where the number of readers was much less, although it has readers every week, even 4 years later.
Thirdly, as a writer your most important allies on-line are your Social Media buddies. One of the reasons why I use tools like Buffer and Recurpost. They post material at a variety of times during the day. This allows a wider reach, connect to people on the other side of the globe and have them access my material as well. Social Media buddies will publicise your work to their friends once you have connected and are the greatest ally in getting the word out. These buddies rarely comment and some don’t read your blog post, but they are great at getting the word out to others.
Looking to Improve
One characteristic of a good writer is that they should always be looking to improve. One element of improving is making your words more readable.
My first research in this area led me to a computer program written in 1988 called Readability. I still have the manual for this program in a hardback version (although I suspect the floppy disk has disappeared long ago). This, based on the scores provided from Flesch – Kincaid and Gunning-Fog formulas, would analyse the text that you provided the program. Today there are many websites that offer readability analysis for your work.
These readability formulas are helpful but they are not perfect however. For example, there is an assumption that all long words (more than 6 letters) are hard to understand. The scores assume average reading ability for your audience. Much depends upon your audience, they may all have doctorate degrees and therefore the language for a 16-year-old is inappropriate. The technical words of your profession can be tough for a lay person to comprehend. If your material focuses on the needs of your profession then those technical words are an essential part of your writing and need including. The words must be appropriate to your audience at all times. A case of still #learning.
Readability is not the Only Requirement
Certainly understanding readability formulas can help you fine-tune your work. But, it depends on having the text grammatically and syntactically correct and free of spelling errors beforehand. It doesn’t detect that dangling participle, for example.
You may have seen the description “passive voice” if you are a user of Microsoft Word. For many years I understood what it was, but not how to resolve it within my writing.
It is true that creation of long sentences can bring with it passive voice usage. However not all long sentences use passive voice and often short ones are equally passive. Generally writers use passive voice when they describe things that happen to people rather than actors doing things. Yet if you use phrases like “was read” or “can be” they are also passive. It s not possible to avoid every instance of passive voice, particularly in fiction.
The trick, at least for business writing, is to find active alternatives. Keep the number of sentences containing passive voice to below 10 percent of what you write.
Drop the Clichés
A Cliché is either a stereotype or a phrase that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought. Most people use them, do you? They include “fit as a fiddle”, “time will tell”, and “opposites attract”. There is truth in the sentiments, but we should avoid the words.
Perhaps, ask a question — will time tell? Maybe a challenge needs setting — be fitter than the fiddle!
I Love Sentences
I know we break sentences down into their component parts, the words, the phrases, the propositions, each help build sentences. The key skill for a writer is building sentences. My father was proud of building houses and I am proud of building sentences. As writers we must use sentences to aid a reader’s understanding.
Sentences come in a variety of lengths. Some are short. Others are long, expanding on the concepts used, providing the detail necessary to aid understanding. Please adopt no hard and fast rule. Some purists believe in sentences of less than 20 words. I love longer sentences, they enable the writer to dive into details, break down propositions into their parts, explain those, whenever necessary, and at the same time offer some balance, a way to counter-pose ideas, yet keep them in close proximity to the original statement. Ironically, there are times when keeping sentences short adds words to the whole piece.
There is a flow to phrases, sentences, paragraphs and even sections. No writing formula demands a fixed sentence length. They ebb and flow according to the words used to explain the ideas being portrayed. They give facts, tug on the heart-strings, and may even be poetic or humorous to make the intended point.
When readability software warns you about the number of long sentences it is simply that, a warning. In general there is nothing wrong with long sentences. They are not always complex to read, especially if they use common words. If less than one in ten of your sentences are long then you should have no problem being understood. A mix of sentences and a mix of paragraphs is best in my view. The long sentence surrounded by short ones can add variety. The writer’s art is one of creating deliberate sentences, structured to create a specific response in the reader.
Explain or Explore More
Glossing over a complex idea is unwise. People turn to blogs to learn something. If complex subjects are not explained, readers feel they have wasted their time. As a writer you must question who is reading your words? Ensure the level of explanation is appropriate, this is especially true of Business Blogs. It is better to add a section that some people skip over than gloss over the subject, missing the explanation altogether.
Currently experts believe that the length of a blog post is better being 2,000 to 2,500 words rather than 500 to 600 words. There should always be ample room to add more detail. People read longer posts because they wish to learn something, it is a part of their professional or personal development. Most of my posts are 1,250 to 1,750 words in length and I do try to add learning points.
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Buy Peter B. Giblett a coffee as thanks for his thoughts about still #learning. What are you learning? The images included here are from royalty free public domain image collections, photographs from Pixabay.