10 Writing tips
If you put much time in writing a text, you hope people will read it. A few tips can help you with that.
When blogging, you should forget a few rules that apply to peer-reviewed articles. Readers of peer-reviewed articles are highly motivated and educated and they are trained to extract information from dry texts. The writing should be clear and precise. You avoid ambivalence and use the same words in the same instances. You describe your methods in a way that allow others to replicate your research. And you put in a lot of references to prior research.
A blog is a different medium. Even when you write for the exact same people as you do when writing research papers, you adapt your writing to the dynamics of the medium. Blogging is less formal and more entertaining. It can be written from a first person perspective. It can contain rough ideas, impressions, experiences, and doubts. You should invest more in helping the reader to make it to the end.
Learning how to write is a matter of doing. Over many texts you develop your favourite topics, running gags, preferred text length, and style. And, if you stick to it, a community of readers gather around the blog. They discover you, like what they see, and come back. Growing numbers of reads, but also the direct feedback of your readers help you to further develop as a blogger.
But, you start from scratch. A few guiding principles can help you get started.
Repetition is boring. Repetition is boring. Repetition… Try to avoid it. Start subsequent sentences within a paragraph and subsequent paragraphs with different words. Use synonyms to describe the same concept in subsequent sentences. Use a variety of supporting details (e.g. facts, examples, quotations) and alternate long and short sentences.
Avoid long sentences and paragraphs. Sentences that span several rules and cover different relations between different concepts are difficult to process. When you arrive at the end of the sentence, you forgot what was stated at the beginning. Especially online difficult to read texts make readers to stop reading. Make sure the first sentences of your paragraphs are short. And, when longer sentences are necessary, alternate them with shorter ones. Often ‘and’ can be replaced by a period. Also paragraphs should be limited in length. Especially on phones, long and dense pieces of text look discouraging to the reader. Paragraphs can even be one short sentence in length.
My rule of thumb is to limit the length of sentences to maximum two rules in my Word processor (11-point Calibri). Paragraphs I try to keep within the limit of 8 rules.
3 Active voice
Try to use the active voice (Charles Darwin collected finches) as much as possible. Passive voice (finches were collected by Charles Darwin) results in longer sentences, is more formal, less direct, and less emotional. Sometimes passive voice is just the best way to put it, but only use it when you first tried the active voice.
4 Avoid jargon
Restrict yourself when it comes to the use of jargon. Sometimes you can skip the term (it might be too nitty-gritty), sometimes you can find well-known synonyms. And, if you need jargon, explain. Often you can use everyday analogies to explain a concept (a clay tablet may be analogous to a post-it, an email, a excel sheet, an iPad). A rule of thumb, that can help you to restrict the density of difficult terms, is to use a newly introduced concept at least three times before introducing a new one.
If you do not want to explain a certain term, you can link to an explanation that is provided elsewhere. When blogging frequently, write these explainers yourself. Devote posts to explaining central concepts that often show up. In later texts you can link back to them. It is a service to both new readers and readers that followed you for a while. The first group learns something new, the latter is not bored by repetition.
5 The right level
Adjust your writing to the knowledge level of your readers. Explain what needs to be explained, do not explain what your readers already know. Both too easy and too difficult are reasons to stop reading. Knowing the right level can be difficult. It depends on the readers, but also on the time and culture. After a while new concepts are so often used that they become part of common language. DNA, neoliberalism, and flattening the curve have become part of the everyday language of a large section of the population.
When trying to find the right level, you might find inspiration in your daily life. The lunch table at the university gives you a clue when writing for a specialized audience. Words that you have to explain to your not so immediate colleagues (same field, different background), also should be explained in your blog. When writing for a broader audience, take a look at mass media. Do they mention and/or explain the cell, CRISPR-Cas9, utilitarianism, enlightenment, p-value? Another way of finding words that need explanation is to translate it to your mother tongue (if this is not English). Is it impossible/difficult? It is jargon.
6 One central point
Texts that lack a clear central point, are difficult to read. In the previous step, you already thought about the main point. However, while writing the text, you easily diverge from the plan. The text starts to stipple and loses its focus. Try to stick to the plan. Do you feel the urge to write more than two paragraphs about a sub-question? Save the material for a separate post.
7 Economic language
Writing is deleting. If you can say the same thing in less words, it is always better. At a certain point in the process of writing a professional writer always has an amount of words that is a multitude of the published text. You start with a generative phase in which you explore the depth and breadth of the topic. Then a phase of deleting the redundant must follow. This process also makes writing a way of thinking. It forces you to differentiate between essentials and side issues.
In the process of creating a more economic text, spot words that indicate degrees of possibility. Might, could, and may in combination with words such as potentially, possibly, and eventually slow down your text. They also radiate caution and nuance. This potentially might be boring to especially the broader public. They see you as expert and want you to tell how things are. Do not violate academic norms, but be sure where you can.
Try to be consistent when writing your blog posts. It gives your readers the opportunity to get used to your way of writing. Within the post, try to find a rhythm (of for instance paragraphs equally in length, one subheading for each two paragraphs) and a tone of voice (formal or informal, personal or clinical, humble or direct). Between posts you can have for instance a (more or less) fixed text length, a few main categories with their own genre (e.g. news, opinion, methods on Monday, or book review), and a fixed way of referencing. Develop a personal style guide.
Use signal words. Signal words highlight the function of a piece of text. For instance (signal word, signifying an example), you can signify a contrast with words such as (signal word, signifying an example): but, however, in contrast, instead, on the contrary, etc. Especially (signal word, emphasising that this sentence is important), at the end of your text you can highlight the conclusion using for example (signal word…): in brief, to sum up, ultimately, or thus. Do not signify too much. The more you use signal words, the least impact each word has.
10 Break the rules
You can use above mentioned tips while writing your text, or as a checklist afterwards (did I use enough active voice?, do I use the same starting word in subsequent sentences? what are redundant words and sentences?, etc.). On the other hand, you can also break them. Beginning subsequent sentences with the same word can be a way of making a point. In blog posts you often see one word sentences (or even paragraphs), and sentences without a verb. However, do this on purpose. Know that you violate a rule and know why you do that.
Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.Pablo Picasso