Do’s and Don’ts For Writing Online

If you were to ask me for one thing to do to advance your career, my answer would be: write.

Even if no one ever reads what you write, it’s worth it. Writing helps you think things through and work out problems, both personally and professionally. Over time, it also makes you a better communicator, more able to get your ideas onto the table and acted upon.

Putting your writing online helps you connect with people. It drives conversations that make you think and revisit your assumptions. If you establish a unique voice and present solid ideas, it’s also a really good way to market yourself.

Ultimately, I think that writing makes you a better person, someone who is more self-aware and able to empathize with others.

I’ve been writing online off and on for more than fifteen years, working as a freelance copywriter for some of that time. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that I try to improve upon every time I write.

Do

Write like you talk. The world is clogged with overly formal academic- and corporate-speak. Formality and circular language put a wall up between you and the reader. Peppering in $10 words when 2 cent words work just fine doesn’t make you look smarter . It makes you look like a blow-hard who isn’t worth listening to and shouldn’t be trusted.  Here’s an example:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality. – Homi K. Bhabha via The Bad Writing Contest

If you can figure out what Mr. Bhabha is trying to get across, you are smarter and more patient to me. I made it to “ruse of desire” before I started zoning out. It could be that he is saying something really profound, but no one will ever know because he wanted to be smart and fancy more than he wanted to express his idea.

There are times to jump into the deep end of English to pull out words that are beautiful and complex, but hammering people over the head with your word choices tends to dull your message.

Be clear and concise. I’m not advocating that you dumb things down, only that you need to be clear in what you express. Even if you use simple language, you can write a maze that’s difficult for people to follow.

Read some Ernest Hemingway, then read Charles Dickens. It depends on the subject and your personal voice, but using the razor-sharpness of Hemingway’s short, direct sentences often conveys more information than Dickens-style paragraphs.

Start simple, cut your ideas to the bone, then add meat if needed. Everything else is dead weight that gets in the way of understanding. You may end up at Dickens if that’s what’s needed to get your idea across, but start with Hemingway.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. – Charles Dickens

vs.

Sometimes things are good and bad at the same time, and that can be confusing. – Me

Be honest. This doesn’t just mean “tell the truth.” It also means “be yourself.” The closer you can get to “yourself”, the more compelling your writing will be.  It’s scary to be honest, because you start expressing things that matter to you and make you feel (and look) vulnerable.

If you’re angry, happy, sad, or scared, express it. If you’re uncertain, even better.  It doesn’t matter if you’re journaling or writing professionally, let the doors open, even if it’s just a little. That’s not an excuse to rant or gush. It’s more effective to focus those emotions into surgical strikes that support the truth you’re telling without overwhelming it.

Showing that you are human creates a connection that helps people care about you and your writing. No one likes showing off their soft underbelly, but if you want an audience that cares, you’ve got to give them something.

Why else are songs about broken hearts so popular?

Admit when you are wrong. I screw up all the time. Last week I screwed up by not attributing a cartoon I used in a blog post to the artist. A couple of people called me on it. At first I was a little annoyed by being called out, but then I took a breath and said “You’re right. I screwed up.” and took the image down.

People often bring up angles I haven’t thought about in my arguments. I do my best to fold their feedback into my thought process and change course when needed. Sometimes that means retracting things I’ve written.

I do this for two reasons:

  1. I care about figuring out the truth of things more than “being right”.
  2. It’s more embarrassing to me to puff up and be dishonest than it is to say “I was wrong”.

The muscle you have to exercise in this is learning to let go of your ideas, both during and after you write. I don’t know how many times I’ve started writing something with a conclusion in mind only to do a 180 once I get a few paragraphs in – thinking the idea through and putting myself inside of the counter-argument forces me to let go of my idea and take hold of a new one.

Don’t

Tie success to page views. The truth is, for every post you publish that gets thousands of readers, you’ll probably have written millions of words that almost no one read or responded to. Sometimes it feels a bit like shouting into a bottomless pit and it’s easy to get discouraged when you never hear an echo.

Even if no one is reading, keep writing. Write and write and write and write. Get comfortable with the idea that you may never have readers and learn to write for the sake of writing. The point when you stop caring is often the same point when you start getting readers. It just works out that way.

From time to time, go back and read your past writing. If you’re embarrassed by it, keep writing, because it means you’re improving. If you’re not at least slightly embarrassed by or frustrated with it, it’s probably OK to stop writing, because something is wrong – you’re either an egomaniac or you’re not getting better.

Forget to read. If you want to write well, you need to read. Immersing yourself in other people’s’ writing will help you identify strengths and weaknesses in your own writing.

Don’t limit yourself to a particular genre or type. Fiction, non-fiction, long-form, short, sci-fi and the classics – it all helps give you perspective and broadens your knowledge of what is possible.

Books about writing should be read with caution as they tend to steer people down rabbit trails where they spend all their time reading about writing instead of writing. There’s a danger in getting trapped in a search for “the secret” that will unlock your writing magic. However, used sparingly, some books about writing can be really helpful.

Here are a few that have helped me:

Be afraid to have an opinion. Take a stand. Don’t be so worried about people disagreeing with you that what you write is watered down, boring, and sounds exactly like everyone else. Why bother if you’re going to play it safe and generic?

People will disagree with you. That’s OK. If you’re writing stuff that no one would disagree with, it’s probably not very interesting.

One of the benefits of these disagreements is that they help you figure out who your audience isn’t. Something to keep in mind as well is that people who disagree with you are much more likely to respond than those who agree, so the negative voices will almost always outweigh the positive. If you need proof of this, look at Yelp.

There are people you will never be able to please, and you shouldn’t try to. It’s wasted effort. It’s OK to consider other people’s opinions, but focus your energy on the people who like your writing. In Seth Godin terms, those people are your tribe. Lead them.

You may be worried about turning off potential employers with your opinions, but consider this: if you have to hide who you are to work for someone, do you really want to work for them? If your views are polarizing, it may be a good idea to temper them a little, but if they are fundamental to who you are, you’re going to be miserable working for someone who would judge you for them.

Lastly, don’t feed the trolls. 

Some people will go past disagreement and try to drag you down with insults. It’s not worth engaging with them. Roll your eyes and move on. They just want a reaction and are starved for attention. Don’t give it to them.

Photo credit: Fredrik Rubensson