Guest post by George Benhorn
Nothing will help you build your fan base on the Web faster than learning to write well. And nothing can place bigger obstacles in your path than writing that’s laced with awkward phrasing, misspellings, grammar mistakes, and poor word choices.
What’s a young blogger to do? Here are some tips I’ve gathered in 40 years as a full-time writer and editor.
I’ve followed Coding Horror for about 10 years, even though Jeff’s tech skills are waaaay beyond mine, and many times I can’t even understand what he’s talking about. But his writing is always crystal-clear and entertaining. For a sample, see “How to Talk to Human Beings.”
Pros like Jeff keep it simple – because they know that what people want is basically quite simple, too – they want to read about something that interests them, and be entertained along the way.
Of course, “simple” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy.”
Down to brass tacks, what’s the single most valuable thing you can do to improve your writing on the Web?
Seriously – and I’m not just being a dinosaur, a tottering relic of the paper age. A study at MIT’s Media Lab found that people make 40 percent more proofreading errors onscreen than with hardcopy. I guarantee you’ll be amazed by how quickly your writing improves when you edit at least one draft on paper. It’s a seldom-mentioned secret of top Web writers…and you read it first right here on WritersinCharge.
You don’t literally have to scribble your changes on the physical sheets of paper. (Good thing, ‘cause if you’re like me, you’ve all but forgotten how to write longhand.) Just glance at the printout while you make changes onscreen. It will improve your writing tremendously.
I learned the next tip from Joe Henderson, founding editor of Runner’s World. I started a four-year apprenticeship with Joe in 1972, when he hired me as his assistant. The first words out of Joe’s mouth were: “It’s never safe to consider an article ‘finished’ until you read it again in the morning.”
If you want to write well, you must let your drunken darlings sleep it off overnight. You’ll be stunned, when you wake up in the morning, by the awful dreck that seemed so sparklingly clever the night before. Better still, let your writing “breathe,” like fine wine, for several days, as each edit brings it closer to perfection.
The next tip will take a bit longer to deliver results..
Read. Read. Read.
I love to find good writing on the Web. When I’m in geek mode, a favorite is Dedoimedo, the website of Igor Ljubuncic. Igor’s a smart guy – he has a PhD in physics, and he writes well. In part because he’s a non-native speaker, his writing style is quirky, but it’s always wonderfully clean and lucid.
By reading good writers, you’ll learn what good writing looks and sounds like, and why it matters. With luck, some of those skills will rub off.
No need to read the writers who put you to sleep in English class. You can learn to write well by reading popular authors.
The great English humorist P. G. Wodehouse was a master of his craft – Isaac Asimov and Hilaire Belloc declared him the best writer of the 20th century. In fact, Wodehouse honed his art by reading hundreds of trashy novels.
You can find great writing in unexpected places. Nobody writes better crime novels than the late Robert B. Parker (Hush Money). Parker is a master stylist; no one is better at choosing the right word.
Reading good writers is like listening to good music – it plays over and over in your brain, influencing how you think and act.
But I digress. Just remember, when you’re writing for the Web, the old rules still apply: Read it aloud. Kill your darlings. Banish clichés. Never use an adverb or adjective unless someone’s pointing a gun at your head. Learn the difference between its and it’s. And read Strunk & White once a year.
If you have good ideas, but your writing skills are lagging, consider hiring a pro – it might cost less than you imagine. Hundreds of people with English degrees and bad money karma advertise their services on Craigslist, under the “write/ed/tr8” section. They can be surprisingly affordable.
Try posting an ad in “Writing gigs.” Offer $20 per edited 400-word blog post. You’ll probably get a dozen replies. Learning from a pro, you may soon find you no longer need their services.
George Benhorn is a freelance editor in Silicon Valley with clients in technology, publishing, and academia. His website is www.editremedy.com