Many bloggers face a common problem: How do you make an article really informative, but at the same time really easy to read?
In my areas of expertise -- marketing, entrepreneurship, SaaS -- the topics can get really complicated. If I’m not careful, my articles can be complex, jargony, and really boring. So how do I avoid this?
Here are some of the techniques I use to make ultra-readable articles that are still intelligent and engaging.
5 Tips for Writing High-Level Blog Posts That Aren't Overwhelming
1) Write short sentences.
Every article is made up of paragraphs, which are made out of sentences. Every sentence forms a complete thought. The shorter and simpler this thought, the easier it is to read. Makes sense, right?
You can write on any topic, no matter how technical, and still sound highly intelligent and readable. The key? Sentence length. Here's some food for thought:
The average sentence length in peer-reviewed journals is 60 words.
The average sentence length in the Harry Potter series is 12 words.
It classically presents with a preceding history of blunt or penetrating ocular trauma, or it may be associated with other ocular disorders such as congenital glaucoma and aniridia, or concomitant hereditary systemic diseases such as Marfan syndrome and homocystinuria."
15-20 words is the average length for most sentences. So how can you write shorter sentences? Here are three tips:
Fewer words. If the sentence doesn’t need a word, drop it.
Fewer expressions. Sentences often get cluttered with wordy expressions. These expressions get in the way. Drop them.
Fewer ideas. Just as important as sentence length is the sentences complexity. Use one sentence for one idea. That’s all.
You can vary your sentence length. But generally speaking, shorter is better.
2) Ask questions, then answer them.
I want people to follow my thoughts in an article. How do I do this? I ask questions, and then I answer them. I did it in the paragraph above. A question followed by an answer.
Every sentence in an article answers some question. In fact, the question that inspired this article was: How can I write smart articles, but keep them easy for people to read?
If you can anticipate your reader's questions, then you can simply state the question and answer the question. Here are some of the questions I ask in this article:
How long should your sentences be?
How can you write shorter sentences?
How do I do this?
What does a question do? A question forces the reader to think. The reader may not be trying to answer it, but they're thinking about it. That’s good enough. That means they're at least following along with my thought. Now, I can answer the question while I have their attention.
3) Summarize research.
One easy way to sound smart and build a stronger argument is to cite research. In this article, I cite a really boring book published by the International Reading Association. I didn’t have to tell you about the authors. I didn’t even mention the name of the book. I just wrote “according to research,” and linked to the article. As a result, here's what happened:
You, the reader, got the knowledge of good research.
I, the writer, got the credibility of citing good research.
Citing and summarizing research is an easy and straightforward way to add impact. It’s also a good way to establish credibility. Most importantly, readers get the benefit of reliable information.
4) Use the right word.
Some writers tell you to use the simplest word possible. According to research, using short and common words is the second most effective way of improving readability. For example:
Instead of adjust use change.
Instead of accommodate use hold.
Instead of substantiate use confirm.
Instead of subsequently use afterward.
Instead of remunerate use pay.
Instead of expedite use speed up.
Instead of implement use do.
Instead of facilitate use help.
Generally, this is good advice. Of course you want to make your article easy to understand, but you also want to be as accurate as possible. Sometimes, you may need to use a bigger word.
For some technical articles, using long or technical words is okay. How do you know when to pull out a big word and when to use a short one? Here are the ideas that I suggest for selecting the right word.
Use words that are easy to understand in the context. Even if a reader can’t tell you the definition of a word, they can use context clues to understand its meaning. Here’s an example: "Make sure that you backup your WordPress files before updating in order to mitigate the risk of a crash." Mitigate is not a common word, however the sentence provides enough context to give the reader a general idea of its meaning.
Use words that your audience will understand. Take your cues from your audience, as they're the ones you’re ultimately writing for. For example, the word pasquinade is not common, but a Hellenistic historian would know exactly what I’m talking about.
Use the word that is most precise. Simpler words often have more general meanings. If I need to describe something that is detailed, I may have to use a detailed word.
Use the shorter and easier word if you have to choose between two. Finally, if you’re facing a decision between two words, pick the easiest one. You don’t have to use the word salubrious; you can just say healthy.
When it comes to choosing words, use the right word for the situation. Big words might make you sound smart, but they don’t always communicate well.
5) Break some grammar rules.
Did you notice that I broke a few grammar rules in this article?
I wrote some incomplete sentences.
I started a sentence or two with a conjunction. (For some reason, some people think that’s wrong.)
I probably committed some other grammatical violations.
I know about grammar, and I hire a copyeditor and proofreader to check my work. But I also know that effective communication is better than always following rules. If I need to break a rule or two to make my writing clear, I’m going to do it.
This isn't to say you should riddle your writing with mistakes or overlook the importance of editing, but don't be afraid to leverage something simple like a slang word that you know your audience can relate to.
Making an article readable is more important than making yourself sound smart. The goal of writing is to communicate an idea to others. If you can’t do that simply and successfully, then you need to try to write simpler.
Your topics may be technical and your subject matter may be esoteric. And that’s okay. As long as you can communicate those ideas to the right people, you’ve succeeded.
What tips do you follow to make your writing smart and readable? Share them with us in the comments section below.
Originally published Oct 6, 2015 6:00:00 AM, updated August 28 2017