Aspiring to Writing Well
There are two reasons why we write. Primarily and often unacknowledged, we write for introspection. Writing is a tool that helps us think. Writing is linearizing our thought process. Note taking is one such example. The second reason is to convey ideas. In other words, the function of writing is to move our conversations forward. In order to do this, we need to appeal to the reader. Written communication lacks however the feedback lop we have when we’re communicating in person. Therefore the message must be simple and clear. We also need to create a reason for the reader to engage with our text, challenging a believe or instilling doubt. Writing issues seem conceptually simple. Simpler than most of the subject matter we engage with. In this article we will review uncommon and common advise to appeal to an audience.
In my last article we looked at recommendations when writing for SEO purposes, that both developers and writers have to consider when publishing content online. One recommendation I came across was to use short sentences and paragraphs, because as it turns out, around 50% of the western population reads below an 8th grade reading level. We can argue this is not the type of audience we are usually aiming at, but it does pose a viable question on writing style and what it actually means to “write well”.
An intriguing experience for me was how writing articles on this web log helped sharpen my thinking. Writing helps process and remember information. The Feynman approach to learning is to teach the subject you’re engaged with. Typing out my raw thoughts, froze them in time. What I noticed were words I use that aren’t well defined, unstructured and unimportant thought. By rewriting and updating, I can flesh out the essence, which in turn helped me think more clearly over time.
Value and Function of Text
In school and university, we learn how to write the wrong way. We write under the model of demonstrating that we understand. Explaining our thoughts to the teacher. The teacher is paid to read our writings. In other occasions we write to show we understand concepts such as passive, showcasing a writing style that follows the rules of our teacher. When we’re thinking about the reader, stop thinking about rules. Use language that makes sense, reread and rewrite paragraphs for simplicity. In the real world people only read our text when our text is of value to them. This is a major difference.
The value of our text is not in our ideas, the value is in the reader. Writing isn’t conveying our ideas to the reader, but changing the ideas of the reader. A good mental model is any conversation where there is a difference of opinion. The right question to ask is not “Why do you think that?” but rather, “Why should I think that?”.
Opinions contrary to common advise are to ignore common text based rules. Do use jargon. How else are we communicating the subject matter properly. Also do use passive sentences where it makes sense. Don’t explain what is common knowledge in your community, it puts people off. Don’t demonstrate that you understand a problem, you’re not assessed. State the problem the community has.
In academia, nothing will be accepted until is has been competently challenged. Our thoughts need to be organized and clear, and we need to be persuasive. Avoid words like “new” or “original”, we don’t create works like that. Strive to create works of value.
A good start to be persuasive is to make our work (seem) important. Don’t use the word “important” neither. We want to tell the reader that they’re wrong or have a gap in their knowledge, only then does our text appear interesting enough to deserve attention. Learn the code. Every community has its own code. A set of words that convey value. In academia, those value words include
nonetheless, widely, accepted, however, although, inconsistent, reported, anomaly
These words are also used for flow, to transition sentences, paragraphs, ideas and challenges. It is estimated that half the time spend in a PhD may be learning about the readers, the people in the respective community of the subject matter. Attention is unlikely to come your way if you don’t know how to appreciate the community and know what the reader doubts. What the reader doubts allows you to be persuasive. Common community value words include
widely, accepted, reported
So called “instability words” help us to create tension, challenge and contradiction in the terms of the community. Instability words include
however, although, inconsistent, but, anomaly
Structure. Reader only process one idea at a time, in a linear sequence. Writing is visual, it catches the eye. Use paragraph units, not sentence units. Start with the problem of the community, or with something the reader cares about. Create a situation of instability (and thereby value). Do not use generalizations. To generalize means we create stability and continuity, we don’t appeal. Follow with what cost the instability imposes on the reader. If the instability is solved it should cause a benefit. Cost and benefit are differentiated for a reason. Point out any knowledge gap in the community if there is any. Gap words when ideas or problems are discussed include
With the problem out of the way, move to the key idea of your text, introduce supporting ideas, move to the central theme. The ending occurs with the main point being made. Final thoughts should be aligned with the central theme. After the initial version is written, review, simplify, prune and order the text.
Published on Friday, Nov 26, 2021. Last modified on Sunday, Apr 17, 2022.