For some reason, this topic has been stuck in my brain and I figure the only way to get it out is by sharing it in an essay here…
Throughout school, I became a “good” writer.
When I put in the effort (which was a problem for a long time), I could write pretty well. In fact, some of my writing got recognized early, so I worked hard to write in a way that I thought my teachers wanted.
As I advanced through school, what I thought they wanted became more and more complex.
As the topics I was writing about (for reports, etc.) became more and more complex, the complexity level of my writing just went off the charts.
In an academic setting, this was rewarded.
Somewhere along the way, I learned about Flesch-Kincaid. And I actually took it as a challenge, to prove that I was writing at or above my grade level.
By the time I was in college, I could write papers that were at the 20+ grade level — the language complexity was such that you needed to be in grad school to understand what the heck I was saying.
And so I got rewarded. In one particular class I loved, with a professor who was definitely my favorite, writing about a topic I chose and learned about in my free time as well as in class… I wrote an off-the-charts complex breakdown of Ken Wilber’s Integral model. The professor hadn’t offered extra credit on the paper, but he considered mine so good I got extra credit anyway.
(This in contrast to classes I wasn’t excited about where I’d struggle all semester and could barely pull a B.)
Not only that, I’d practiced poetry, and writing for style. So even in academic papers, I’d slip in subtle rhyming, linguistic rhythm, and other elements that made the writing sound good when read aloud.
My writing was IMPRESSIVE!
There’s a certain group of readers — mostly in academics — that like complexity.
How many thoughts can you fit into a single sentence? How complex of a sentence structure can you make work? How long of words and how thick of jargon can you use correctly? How much style can you convey in your writing?
And I most definitely learned how to impress those readers!
But then I entered the real world.
More specifically, I entered marketing.
In the world of marketing, that kind of writing doesn’t cut it. In marketing, you’re more concerned about getting your message across. In marketing, you need to move people, which requires them to understand what you’re saying.
And so I started to walk back my style.
I dropped down in complexity. I edited out complex, compound sentences. I chose shorter words, where I could.
(Oh yeah, and academic writing is full of passive language. I got active.)
And I even took out much of the superfluous style that made my writing feel flowery and carefully composed.
I stripped everything back. So what was left was me, the reader, and the message I was trying to convey.
I tried to make my writing INVISIBLE…
Can you still use the occasional alliteration, rhyming, or style to get your reader engaged? Sure. In fact, there’s a persuasive principle called the “Rhyme as Reason” effect.
We literally believe rhyming statements more than we believe ones that don’t rhyme. Rhymes also stick in our memory better. (Those two may be related.)
And so they can be useful in communication including marketing and advertising, when done with discretion.
But mostly, the more you strip down your writing, the better a communicator you will be.
Even if your market is sophisticated and very capable of reading complex language, they’ll appreciate that you’ve made something fast and easy to read.
What to focus on instead of your writing style…
What makes writing even more interesting than its style is its substance.
Maybe you communicate to share ideas and to teach. Maybe you’re communicating to persuade. Either way, make sure you’re focused on content over craft.
Great thinking, as Mark Ford has told me more than once, is the foundation of great writing.
When you put too much puffery into your writing, you’re hiding the great thinking. (Unless the point is to hide that you DON’T have great thinking!)
Instead, strip it down. Make sure you have great thoughts to put into your writing. Then, make it clear, compelling, and concise.
Make it about the message you want to convey.
And make the writing invisible.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,
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