Writing Top Ten

From Gerald R. Lucas

Long have I lamented the poor state of college writing and considered strategies to improve it. Like writing itself, my top-ten list is an on-going process of deliberation and revision. Consider this page the executive summary. Each point below will have a separate and detailed post as I get to it.

While it may not be complete, I endeavor to give students the foundational concepts for solid college writing. Consider the following, and let me know what I missed. I’ll call this a beta version for now. Here we go.

Let’s begin with the Golden Rule: All writing online should stand on its own.

In other words, make each post understandable to anyone who might happen to stumble upon it. You might have various reasons for posting online, like an assignment for a class, a reaction to an event, or your thoughts about a the latest episode of Doctor Who, but unless you contextualize each of these, they will make little sense to a general audience. Even if you’re writing to fulfill a class assignment, don’t write it like you might have when submitting it on paper to your professor — where each of you understand the context. Writing online is accessible to a much broader audience, so be sure you include them in your discussion.

 NOTE: While this list is presented like commandments, they are just suggestions and will not be true for every platform. In other words, many platforms, like Wikipedia, will have their own set of guidelines that might contradict those listed below. These are meant to be guidelines for digital writing and not rules to always be followed. Always be aware of the specific requirements for the medium on which you’re writing.

Be Focused

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Focus your writing’s content: always have a point and state a specific claim. In writing classes, we call this a thesis statement. However, we needn’t be so formal; let’s call this our primary argument or the main point. All solid writing states a claim then supports it with evidence. Whatever you’re writing remains incomplete unless you can point to your assertion.

When writing for the screen, write a headline that briefly abstracts your post, like the "nutshell" above. This way, users know exactly what your post is about and your position on it.

In the Yahoo! Style Guide, Chris Barr suggests front-loading your most important content and keeping it short and simple.[2] You only have a couple of seconds to get and keep your readers’ attention, so front-loading your point will have the greatest chance of encouraging readers to continue.

Furthermore, Jakob Nielson shows that users do not even read on the screen—they scan.[3] He suggests using keywords, meaningful headers and subheads, and keeping to one idea per paragraph.

Be Credible

Use specific evidence to support your claims. The Greeks promoted ethos as a foundation for successful rhetoric. Think of credibility as supporting what you write with the best evidence.[4] Why “believe” or “feel” or “opine” when you can “know”? Support ideas, suppositions, and claims with specific evidence. Remember Hitchens’ Razor:

Unless you are an expert in your field, you should support any assertions you make not considered factual or common knowledge with specific, verifiable evidence and concrete examples. For example, the statement “Barack Obama was the first African-American president of the USA” does not need support. However, “Barack Obama has done more than any other US president to strengthen the second amendment” needs several reliable sources to back it up.

In other words: do your homework. Cite reliable sources in a clear, consistent manner.

Be Active

Default to the active voice: use verbs as verbs, nouns as nouns. Describing uses more words than doing. Be like Mike and his Nikes: Just Do It. Be aware of the parts of speech and how each word will optimally function in a sentence. Avoid “zombie nouns,”[6] jargon, and academicese[7] when possible.

Be Precise

Use the best words, phrases, and punctuation for the task and get to the point. Be clear, concise, and direct. Succinct language that avoids long blocks of text provides incentive for readers. Short sentences are powerful. Direct language presents ideas clearly, rather than hiding them behind circuitous language. Provide concrete illustrations of abstract ideas. Use analogies — similes and metaphors — carefully.

Be Aware

Consider what the ancient Greeks called kairos — the correct time and place — sometimes called the rhetorical situation.[8] Context involves knowing what readers will expect from your approach to the topic and the medium you use to convey it — what, according to J.D. Applen, gets people listening and acting.[9] This involves knowing your audience (or users) and choosing elements of composition that will appeal to them.

When writing for the screen, compose for a general audience. That is, be sure your users have all the information they need to make sense of your post. Remember: All posts should stand on their own. This might be as easy as a link to another web site or providing a proper citation.

Linking to a reference? Then briefly mention why. Instead of writing “This web site is interesting” (which says nothing — nor does it give the reader any indication of what the web site is), try “In ‘Writing Top Ten,’ Gerald Lucas breaks down the ten most important aspects of writing.” Be concrete, precise, and specific.

Be Organized

Structure and develop writing in a logical way. The medium will suggest a structure, so use the expected parts, like titles, paragraphs, keywords, and (sub)headers — whatever is germane to the medium; e.g. many platforms will have their own style manuals, like Medium[10] and Wikipedia. Or, you could use your own. These expected elements give writing a flow, mark development, and provide visual cues for readers. Organization that considers context increases usability.

When writing for the screen, consider the inverted pyramid approach. That is, lead with the most important material, and put less important information in subsequent paragraphs.[11]

Be Correct

If writing is an outfit, grammar provides the accessories. Misusing the objective case is like wearing blue socks with a black suit: it might not destroy the outfit, but it also won’t impress. Know when to use a comma. Know what a semicolon does before putting it in play. Check parallelism and tense. Do not confuse possessives with plurals. Choose an appropriate point of view and voice, and use them throughout your piece. If you begin writing in the first-person, stick with it. If you choose a formal voice at the beginning of your blog entry, use it until the end.

Choose a style manual to use for all of your writing, or use the platform's if applicable.[12]

When writing your first draft, use a service like Hemingway App or Grammarly to help with style and more obscure grammar rules. That said, do not write like a computer. If you’re unsure, look it up.

Be Creative

Try unique approaches, turns-of-phrase, platforms. One of the more powerful aspects of writing for digital media is the flexibility it gives: use more than just text. Try an image that helps clarify your point. Use an embedded video that supports an argument. Use unique analogies — metaphors and similes — but avoid clichés. Ask yourself: how can I show this idea with an imaginative comparison or visual? As Applen argues, the most persuasive language is the visual.[13] Show rather than tell.

Be Presentable

Always choose the best medium for your message. Some ideas, like philosophical polemics, might be best reserved for essays, while quick comments on said essays might be best made as Tweets.

As a corollary, format the content for the medium. What works as a biography in print will likely need revision to conform to an ebook.

When writing for the screen, use the best practices for the platform you’re using. For example, on Wikipedia, use recommended best practices.

Be Error-Free

Proofread and revise: if you don’t want to read you own work, no one else will either. Pay particular attention to the above points as you edit. You might consult a document like the “Editor's Checklist” or a style manual appropriate to your medium and discipline to help with revision.

Notes

  1. Originally written on December 31, 2013.
  2. Barr, Chris (2010). The Yahoo! Style Guide. New York: St. Martin's Griffin. pp. 5–7.
  3. Nielson, Jakob (October 1, 1997). "How Users Read on the Web". Nielson Norman Group. Retrieved 2018-12-26.
  4. Carroll, Brian (2010). Writing for Digital Media. New York: Routledge. pp. 25–30.
  5. Hitchens, Christopher (October 20, 2003). "Mommie Dearest". Slate. Retrieved 2016-04-24.
  6. Sword, Helen (July 23, 2012). "Zombie Nouns". New York Times. Opinionator. Retrieved 2018-12-26.
  7. Geary, Joanna (January 10, 2008). "Academic-ese". Joanna Geary. Retrieved 2018-12-25.
  8. Nordquist, Richard (January 18, 2018). "Kairos Definition and Examples". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 2018-12-26.
  9. Applen, J. D. (2013). Writing for the Web: Composing, Coding, and Constructing Web Sites. New York: Routledge. p. 188.
  10. Larson, Quincy (October 17, 2016). "A Style Guide for Writing on Medium". FreeCodeCamp. Retrieved 2018-12-26. Larson outlines some strategies for optimizing writing for Medium’s platform. Medium also has an official style sheet: "Medium Style Sheet". Medium. April 15, 2013. Retrieved 2018-12-26.
  11. Scanlan, Chip (June 20, 2003). "Writing from the Top Down: Pros and Cons of the Inverted Pyramid". Poynter. Retrieved 2018-12-26.
  12. Most composition textbooks, like the one you used for ENGL 1101 have a style manual.
  13. Applen 2013, p. 188.