I’ve often heard Puffins lament that they would like to contribute articles to our esteemed website but are too daunted.
So, I thought I’d share a few tips to encourage more Puffins to pick up their pencils. Getting articles published on Going Postal is a great feeling because it is such a uniquely discerning community of readers and contributors!
Hopefully you might find these tips useful and respond next time Swiss Bob puts out the Bat Signal. Or, they may just come in handy at work.
Let’s begin with how you should approach writing, before you even put pen to paper.
1 – Mindset
Respect your audience – build trust
In places like Going Postal respecting your reader goes without saying, but sadly many writers ignore it completely. Which is why I’m starting with it – chances are you will already have this one in your tool kit!
I find the BBC’s style of writing infuriating because it looks down on the reader. Many writers also have a superiority complex that seeps through – Will Self comes to mind. Examples of poor writing due to disrespecting the reader in this way include political pamphlets, expert opinion pieces, government websites and ‘academic’ papers. A lot of this guff now reads simply as gaslighting propaganda. All trust is gone. A writer must therefore put integrity and respect for the reader above everything else in order to be a good writer.
The ‘trust equation’ is a useful tool to challenge yourself on whether you are winning in the trust department. You can apply it to lots of things in life, including your writing. If any of the components are lacking, a writer will not resonate with readers.
Trust = (credibility + reliability + intimacy) / self-orientation
Self-orientation means selfish motivation. This part of the equation can have a massive impact by undermining the rest of the equation. Consider the writing of a certain disinformation reporter to realise how important this is.
Intimacy is also important to get right. A subtle example of using it effectively is how El Cnutador will whimsically bring his cat and dog into his articles. But intimacy done insincerely can backfire. Consider how corporations respond to Twitter complaints by getting a minion to mechanically empathise with the complainant and be overly familiar. It’s cringeworthy.
I don’t consider myself a talented writer. I am not an expert in anything in particular and any research I do will be limited. And yet I am confident someone somewhere will read this and like it. Have faith in yourself and give it a go. Trust your instincts.
Don’t force it, and don’t rush
Writing should come naturally and be fun. Wait until you are bursting with thoughts and enthusiasm. Take your time and let your ideas mature. It is amazing what your subconscious will do whilst working away in the background for free. And don’t beat yourself up if you’re not in the right frame of mind.
Once you’ve got your mindset right, it’s time to think about technique.
2 – Technique
Re-write, re-write, re-write
This is the biggest secret to good writing. Go back over what you’ve written and find ways to improve it. Remove as much fluff as you can. Simple and direct writing is more persuasive. When you are writing the first draft there’s no need to stress because you know you will fix it later. Just get the ideas down to start.
Everything I write will change several times and this takes up most of the time spent. Come back later and you will experience your work more as a critical reader than as the author.
I also like to put my article into an app that will read it out to me. By listening to it, I can better notice parts that may be unclear or need re-working.
Don’t be precious. Be prepared to discard material even if you are proud of it. Always prioritise the reader. When I first tried to write an article for Going Postal I wrote a long two-parter on Mallory and Irvine’s attempt to climb Everest. After nearly finishing it, I found out DJM had already written an article on the same topic. I was not happy with my article anyway, so I left it and wrote something entirely different. I may pick it up again at some point, but I’m not that bothered. I learnt a lot and had fun – that’s what counts!
Be like Hemingway
We are blessed with a number of authors on GP who have a wonderfully expressive style. Their words drip like honey across long sentences and you lap it all up. Such talent takes a long time to develop, so you will only be disappointed if this is the standard you set yourself. A better approach for the beginner is to be like Hemingway.
Ernest Hemingway is my favourite writer and he had several rules for writing that are worth copying. It is no coincidence that some of the best writers learnt their craft as newspaper reporters – such as Hemingway, Orwell and, of course, Jerry’s Uncle John – where being concise was essential. Hemingway was a master of keeping sentences short and removing unnecessary words – particularly adjectives and adverbs. Analysis shows that novels considered the greatest use fewer of these words.
Hemingway is said to have won a bet by writing this six-word short story (which seems to turn the room dusty everytime I read it):
For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.
Of course, only using short sentences and removing descriptive words can make your writing rather tedious. Hemingway does use longer sentences, but he balances these out to help the reader.
Hemingway also said writing should be positive rather than negative. Say what happens, rather than what doesn’t. For example, in my first draft I wrote “are you failing in the trust department?”, which I changed to “are you winning in the trust department?”
As someone who has to write a lot of reports at work, it frustrates me how my colleagues insist on writing in an overly complicated style. Few write in a direct and compelling way. This is partly intentional because their objective is to sound impressive rather than communicating.
Grab the reader’s attention
Hemingway made a point of keeping opening paragraphs short and punchy. The aim is to draw the reader in from the start.
Researchers have studied how people read documents by plotting the part of the page their eyes look at. They found that there is a cluster in the top left of a document which then fades out. Readers focus on the opening sentences and the beginning of sentences. Their attention quickly diminishes and few read everything.
Match your style to the format
What you’re reading here isn’t a novel or a poem. It’s a bit like an essay but less formal. I don’t need to be technically precise. The style I’m using is good for a broad range of topics and formats. It works for emails, presentations and opinion pieces. Think about the medium you are using. What does the reader want? How long should it be and how should it be structured? I like to put in lots of sub-headings to help break my writing up. It also helps to tell your readers what you are doing and why, when you are introducing a new topic.
That’s all I have to say. Happy writing!
© JimmySP 2023