Three bad habits that kill most people’s writing

Writing doesn’t have to be painful. Lose some bad habits, and you and your readers will be happier.

Writing doesn’t have to be painful. Lose some bad habits, and you and your readers will be happier.

It’s happened to all of us.

You catch some sort of headline online—something intriguing, or a topic that’s been on your mind for a while—and you click, with great hope and anticipation.

Then, you get a paragraph or so in, and you realize… this sucks.

You try to salvage your tattered threads of hope by scanning down the page, looking for more, but your optimism is quickly draining. Ugh. You hit the back button.

Chances are, one of these three bad habits was the culprit in this little scenario. Here they are, and how to avoid them cropping up in your own writing.

1. YOU’RE NOT STUPID, BUT YOUR WRITING IS CHOCK FULL OF DOPEY MISTAKES.

Nothing deflates someone’s credibility like goofy grammar, shabby spelling and sloppy sentence structure. It’s like showing up to a reception and being the only one dressed in a tattered T-shirt and jeans—you’re drawing attention to yourself in a bad way.

Here are some things I do to defibrillate my inner English teacher:

Arm yourself with the basics. By this, I mean…

  • A dictionary (online or the tree-killer variety)
  • A thesaurus (ditto), and
  • Some sort of style guide. If you’re in the medical field, that’s the American Medical Association Manual of Style [http://www.amamanualofstyle.com]. If you’re doing regular journalistic stuff, that’s the Associated Press Stylebook [https://www.apstylebook.com].

These will answer all the basics you have about capitalization, style, proper usage and the like.

For the truly grammar phobic, I highly recommend Patricia O’Connor’s Woe is I. It’s an awesome book that makes our confusing mother tongue’s convoluted rules a lot easier to grapple with.

Proofreading matters. All it takes is one “you’re” where you should have had a “your,” and someone out there will notice—and judge. Here are some proofreading tips that have saved my hide more than I care to admit:

  • Have someone proof it cold. Tell them to be ruthless.
  • Put the piece away for a day (if you can spare the time) and re-read it. You’ll see things you didn’t before.
  • Read it out loud, to yourself. Yes, you risk looking like the office kook, but this old radio trick allows you to hear your words and phrasing—much like people read to themselves inside their heads. This technique will make you painfully aware of every ding and bump in your work.

2. YOUR WRITING HAS ALL THE STRUCTURE OF A WET NOODLE.

We’ve all read this kind of content—it meanders from one idea to another without connecting any dots. The frustration for your readers is that they are so busy trying to follow your murky logic, they miss the point of what you’re saying. There are two cures for a wet noodle structure: 1) Build an underlying structure, and 2) Use transitions.

Create an underlying structure ahead of time – You can use the good-old-fashioned outline technique we all learned in fifth grade, or try your hand at more modern techniques like index cards or mind mapping.

Index cards are a simple trick I use all the time, especially with larger, more complex writing assignments.

  • Get a pile of blank index cards (PostIts® work nicely, too) and a Sharpie.
  • Write one idea per card.
  • Organize the cards on any large, flat surface… organization chart style… and voila! You have a solid structure before you to start writing from.

There’s also mind mapping:

  • Take a blank piece of paper and write your central theme in the middle of it.
  • Start free-associating ideas, building branches, then smaller branches, then twigs.
  • It’s a great way to generate visual ideas, too. Write down everything!

Here’s a sample I randomly found online about population and the planet…

mindmap-history

And then, there are transitions. (That was one just now.)

Transitions are words that connect one idea to another—they ease the reader into it, as opposed to taking a sudden, hard right turn and making everyone spill their coffee. You can use a word as simple as “however,” or be more elaborate. Here’s an example:

I wasn’t sure, exactly, what compelled me to climb that rocky cliff. Perhaps it was some sort of self-challenge or need to prove myself—to mark my place in this world.

As I clung to that sliver of rock some 50 feet up, I thought to myself: “It was a hell of a lot easier to make my mark as a blogger. And a lot less dangerous.” [Transition] But rock climbing and blogging still have some interesting characteristics in common…”

3. YOU MEAN WELL, BUT YOUR STYLE IS PUTTING PEOPLE ON SUICIDE WATCH.

Attention spans are short. We are all starved for the right information, yet we’re impatient as hell when hunting for it. Life is too short to write boring stuff. Here are some ways to develop your style and sweeten the page for your readers in the process:

Channel your favorite writer. By this, I mean really study the writers, bloggers and content creators you love. Break down what they do and how they do it. The mere act of trying to decipher their secret sauce will make you a better critic and writer, automatically.

Strike the right balance between being interesting and informative. Writing that’s too heavy on content reads like a textbook. Copy that’s too casual with just a sprinkling of facts comes across as fluff.

One way to make information and interest play nice together is to offer plenty of facts, but write it in an easier, digestible style. So make your facts and metaphors sit side by side, in harmony. Ask your statistics and stories to hold hands. You get the idea.

There is a common theme with all of our three bad habits.

Have you guessed it? Laziness. Writing is work. It takes effort to put something down on paper that can stand on its own, carry a reader through, deliver what it promises, and be entertaining. Maybe that’s why it’s such a daunting task for so many folks.

But, even if you try to eliminate these habits, you’ll see a noticeable difference in what you craft—and so will your readers.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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