Write for Impact, Not for Ego
© 2021 Karl Albrecht
Reading Time: 4 minutes
1. The first 100 words make the sale. Grab the reader’s attention right away with a thought-provoking title and maybe an interesting subtitle.
2. Don’t waste the lead—the first sentence and the first paragraph. Skip the “howdy, folks” chit-chat and get right down to business.
3. Choose a lead that works well for your subject matter. Consider some of these options:
- Declarative lead: “If we want a better America, we’ll have to become better Americans.”
- Question lead: “If we want a better America, will we have to become better Americans?”
- Factual lead: “America has five percent of the world’s population, and we have nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison inmates.”
- Curiosity lead: “How many native-born Americans do you think could pass the basic citizenship test that immigrants have to take?”
- Human interest lead: “Ms X had stayed up all night studying for the citizenship test. She had wanted to become an American citizen ever since she was a small girl, and now was her chance. She walked into the immigration center, feeling a mixture of pride and . . .”
- Story lead: “The man who murdered President Abraham Lincoln cowered inside a tobacco barn in rural Virginia, as federal troops closed in.”
- Surprise lead: “Statistical studies show that suicide rates in America rise sharply after a high-profile celebrity suicide, and stay high for several weeks thereafter.”
4. Keep the momentum after you’ve launched with the lead. Don’t make it a free-form rant or an aimless diatribe. Take the reader with you; give them a path to follow. Move from one idea, assertion, fact, or topic to the next.
5. Avoid the temptation to preach at people or indulge in grand generalizations. Keep it grounded.
6. Go easy on the “I’s.” Don’t waste reader time and attention with leads like “In my last post, I talked about . . .” Too many “I”-references can give the impression you think you’re preaching to your fan club. If you’re world-famous, maybe you are, but most likely they came there hoping to find something interesting or useful to read.
7. Leave out the “cute stuff”—clever asides, parenthetical wisecracks, etc. that call attention to the writer instead of the prose.
8. Speak the reader’s language. Use a vocabulary—figures of speech, metaphors, relevant terminology—that makes the message seem familiar and the journey feel comfortable. What works well for a highly specialized academic or professional reader might not work well for “ordinary” people. Don’t use coarse language just for shock or impact. If you believe that strong language is appropriate to the reader and your purpose, use it carefully
9. Make it easy on the eye and easy on the brain. Break the text up into bite-sized paragraphs of about 5-7 lines—rarely more than 10. Reader studies show that comprehension and retention of the subject matter peak with an average sentence length of about 20 words. Use bullets and numbering, indentation, italics, and boldface (sparingly, of course). Consider including simple diagrams for illustration, or links to stream audio and video clips if appropriate to your message and purpose. Read it aloud to make sure it flows; many people subvocalize (hear their voices in their minds) as they read, so avoid awkward pronunciations.
10. For American authors: go easy on the Americanisms. Figures of speech like “a dime a dozen;” references to TV characters or pop-culture personalities; or acronyms like IRS and NAACP might not be familiar to readers in other countries. Spell out acronyms. Include the name of the state after you refer to a city. Globalizing your writing vocabulary can make them feel like you’re talking to them, too.
11. Educate the readers a bit as you inform or stimulate them. Teach them some new words that would be useful in thinking about the topic. Introduce a “fancy” term or two which they might not have seen, and invite them to import it into their vocabulary. Example: “Psychologists talk about ‘confirmation bias,’ which is our tendency to pay closer attention to evidence that supports our beliefs and opinions, and ignore or pass up evidence that might contradict them.”
12. Show respect for the views of others; give them their due. You might disagree with half of what someone says but you might also agree with half. Most readers appreciate a nuanced argument more than an all-or-nothing, winner-takes-it-all blast.
13. Keep it civil. No matter how strongly you disagree with someone’s words or actions, or even disapprove of their character, refrain from personal attacks that only serve to cheapen your message and polarize your readers. Make your case with facts and logic. Don’t stoop to ad hominem (Latin for “against the person”) attacks: name-calling, character assassination, sarcasm, ridicule, or demeaning nicknames. Think carefully before you assign a motive or intention to their behavior. You have every right to object when someone is behaving in a way you consider destructive, but focus on the behavior and pass up the temptation to moralize about their character.
14. Don’t agonize too much about length. Shorter is probably better in most cases, but many popular blogs have rather long posts. 1,000 words makes for a reading time of about 3-4 minutes. If it’s useful and readable, however, lots of people will stay with you if it runs to two or three times that length.
15. Polish before you publish. Give it a once-over, as if you were the editor of the publication or the platform you’re sending it to. Read it as if you’ve never seen it before. Make it shorter if possible. Trim out sentences, phrases, or words than don’t earn their keep. Break the long sentences into shorter ones. Make sure the ideas flow from one to another. Check your grammar and punctuation (“its” vs. “it’s,” “you’re” vs. “your,” “which” vs. “that,” etc.). People who have a lot of formal schooling often notice such things, and can find them distracting.
16. Do we need to say it? Don’t plagiarize or pirate material from other sources. Give credit or cite the source when you rely substantially on someone else’s writing. Quoting a hundred words or so is generally considered ethical, if you cite the source. In some cases, you might just write a couple of sentences to introduce the topic and then send the reader to the original source.
17. Add a copyright notice if you feel it’s appropriate.