5 Simple Writing Tips To Engage Readers
[toc]Think you’ve got what it takes to become a successful writer?
You probably don’t think so, because if you did, you wouldn’t have clicked on a post about simple writing tips. The good news is that your lack of self-esteem is about to work in your favor, because these tricks can help you improve your skills, un-learn bad habits and ultimately retain a larger readership.
Some people charge big money for what I’m about to tell you, but I’ll do it for free. That’s just the kind of guy I am. (Remember this the next time I ask you to click on an ad.)
The secrets to simple writing, great articles and a loyal fan base
Here they are.
1. Know What You Want From Your Audience
First you need to know how you define success, or in this case, engaging readers. What would make you think you’d written an awesome article? The comment count? The overall number of likes and reblogs?
Let’s say a million people just read your work. Great. What do you want them to do about it?
“Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.”
Simple writing starts and ends with a goal. If, for example, you’re endorsing a product, the goal will be to make people buy it. If you’re writing a comedy sketch, the goal is to make people laugh.
These two pieces of work should not sound the same. Comedy should be fun and memorable and easily understood; product reviews should should professional and probably a little obtuse, just so you can fool people into thinking you know what you’re talking about.
Know what you want from your audience before you let them see your work. It’s the easiest way to judge its success and engagement levels later.
2. Ask Questions
This is an ancient and subtle art perfected by great literary scholars like Dr. Seuss:
“Do you like green eggs and ham? Would you like them in a house? Would you like them with a mouse? Would you like them on a train?”
The important thing to note here is that Dr. Seuss doesn’t actually care about the answers. The readers’ responses to these questions are irrelevant. The story continues with or without them. Dr. Seuss does not actually give a flip if you want his green eggs and ham.
What matters about this passage is the fact that humans are conditioned to answer questions when asked. When something is posed to us, whether it’s “Is there a God?” or “Do you want friends with that?”, our brain automatically kicks into gear and starts thinking about it.
Take these two sentences as an example:
1. Guacamole is disgusting.
2. Is guacamole disgusting?
You may or may not have reacted to number one. Maybe if you have a really strong opinion about guacamole. For number two, however, your brain automatically supplied a “yes” or “no,” probably conjuring up some old memories and/or judgements to support its argument.
That is the true value of asking questions of your readers. Whether they realize it or not, their brains are actively engaged whenever you ask them to have an opinion on something.
You don’t have to be the next F. Scott Fitzgerald to keep your readers captivated. I mean, look at Dr. Seuss. If any man ever mastered simple writing, it’s him, and he enjoyed his train all the way to the bank.
3. Break It Up
The attention span of a goldfish is something like eight seconds. That’s twice as long as someone browsing the internet.
No, really: 17 percent of web surfers stay on a page for four seconds or less. These are actual statistics. Once someone is looking at your article, then simple writing or not, you have less than four seconds to make them decide it’s worth reading.
So how are you going to achieve this? Not with wall-to-wall text, that’s for sure. Not with something that looks more like a thesis than a blog post. You need to break it up.
Make it interesting.
Keep your article from looking like a bunch of endless paragraphs.
Don’t be afraid to make short paragraphs or use bullet points, subheadings and numbered lists. (See what I did here?)
According to a 2012 article in The Guardian, “By understanding how users scan web pages (…) you enable users to easily navigate your content and find the relevant section for them.”
You can also use visual aids to help liven things up, though that’s not really a tip for simple writing, not unless you really are pulling a Dr. Seuss and going for children’s books. Still: Anything that catches the eye and keeps their attention for more than four seconds is, statistically speaking, faring better than everything else on the internet.
4. Would You Read This?
Let’s say you’re trying to convince someone to see a certain movie. You’re a big fan, you know all the cast information and plot twists and useless trivia, don’t pitch it in a boring manner that makes you lose the attention of your readers.
Once you’ve written something, it’s important to look back on it and ask yourself, “If I hadn’t personally penned this, if this was all brand new information to me, would I still be interested in reading this?”
Your friend has never seen The Avengers. They don’t care about the intricacies of the plot like you do. Simple writing shouldn’t have tons of names and dates and details. Simple writing should be, well, simple.
Here is how you succinctly describe a movie like The Avengers: “A bunch of superheroes fight aliens while New York blows up and Scarlett Johansson walks around in a skintight bodysuit.”
Now that’s something worth a Google image search, right?
5. Become A Better Writer
This is the advice no one wants to hear, because it’s difficult and time-consuming and no one wants to sit around in creative writing workshops while some beret-wearing hipster reads poetry about the darkness in his soul. It is, however, the most critical aspect of attracting readers:
Be a good writer.
It doesn’t matter if you have the most interesting idea in the world. If you can’t express it in a clear, coherent way, no one is going to care. You need to know proper grammar and how to construct a sentence. You have to understand how your “voice” comes across to your readers.
There’s a great passage by Gary Provost that illustrates the importance of knowing how you sound to your audience:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
Isn’t that something?
Unfortunately, no one can be taught to write, not really. You can read a thousand “how to” articles about simple writing without having the slightest talent for constructing words yourself.
You can, however, practice and practice and practice some more, and that’s the way you’re going to improve. With every page, every article, you’ll get a little bit better and a little more confident. You’ll start to intuitively understand when you should break up paragraphs and insert commas. You’ll find your voice.
Simple writing isn’t a math formula where you plug in words + enthusiasm and = good writing. Simple writing is an art, and like any kind of art, it takes time and trial and error to get it right.
So stop reading this article and go write one of your own.
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Sources for images: FLICKR