Writing Clearly for Fun and Profit…

…or, how to make sure your LiveJournal, mail list, and newsgroup posts don’t just get skipped over by your audience.

Forums like Weblogs and mailing lists are written media. In these forums, we see nothing of what people are save for what they write. In any written medium, people who write clearly and distinctly, and who use language precisely and in an easy-to-understand way, will likely be read more often and given more attention than people who do not.

Anything you do that makes your messages harder to read or harder to understand will make it more likely that people will not pay any attention to anything you have to say. The written word is the only thing you have here; if you do not use it well, then your ideas, no matter how good they may be, will be disregarded.

There are many things that people do which make their messages difficult to read–and everything that makes a message difficult to read will cause some people not to read it.

The worst offenders are:

1. using runonsentences that are not properly spaced.especially when there are no spaces after the punctuation,when you do this with commas,it gets really,really,really hard to read.this makes everything run together,in a mess that is almost impossible to extract meaning from.really.

How to avoid it:

– Put a space after every piece of punctuation. Notice that a space follows the period at the end of a sentence, and follows a comma within a sentence.

– Do not use run-on sentences. If you are expressing two different thoughts, use two (or more) sentences.

2. Putting all the mass of text in one big lump. I guarantee, this is one of the worst things you can do.

How to avoid it:

– Break your thoughts up into paragraphs. Put double-spaces between the paragraphs. By breaking up your text, you make it far, far easier to understand.

3. Using AOL cht-spk or 1337-5p34k. Using terms like “u” unstead of “you,” “ppl” instead of “people,” and so on makes your message much more difficult to parse; as a general rule, I almost never read messages that use these styles of abbreviations; especially when they are combined with jargon or other abbreviations that are not immediately obvious. Add emoticons and the like to the mix, and you have an impenetrrable mess. Remember, your goal is to communicate; do not create artifical barriers to this communication.

4. Using the D/s writing convention invented in some of the more obnoxious online BDSM chatrooms and, unfortunately, spreading like typhus or bubonic plague throughout much of the rest of the Internet community. I’m referring, of course, to the use of hybrid upper and lowercase letters when referring to a group of people that may include folks who identify as dominant and submissive: “W/we would like to ask Y/you for a favor. Please attend O/our combined play party and English grammar dissertation; it will be the best time Y/you will ever have outside an insurance seminar.” I’m waiting for the day people begin applying this grammatic monstrosity to individuals who are switches: “I/i am a S/switch, which means I/i can be Dominant or submissive.”

How to avoid it:

– Don’t. Seriously. Just don’t do this. I/i M/mean I/it. I/i automatically disregard A/any message from A/anyone who writes like T/this. A/always.

5. Using metaphors that are only obvious to you, but are not obvious, or even decipherable, to anyone else. “Well, if you think about the implications of teleology as applied to the political situation in Nazi Germany in 1943, you will immediately see that life is a battlefield seen through endless masses of Jell-O.” What?

Some metaphors can be figured out from context; if a restaurant has signs on the restroom doors reading “Popeye” and “Olive,” most adult Westerners can figure it out from social context. If the signs read “Turtles” and “Tortoises,” then you have a problem.

Some people think in metaphor more easily than others, but even so, a metaphor that relies on some connection or association known only to you and your fifth-grade science teacher, and nobody else in the world, will not succeed for anyone. Often, the cynical side of me suspects that some people, particularly in some parts of the New Age community, use incredibly flowery, over-the-top metaphor merely to impress themselves, or to conceal the fact that their central idea is weak.. (I see this on the World Polyamory Association mailing list from time to time, for example.)

An actual, real-world example: “Not only have the fnord weavers exploited the normal Human needs for love, acceptance, shelter, belongingness and justification by making us feel that we must join one of the state-sanctioned types, they also exploited and reinforced our natural xenophobia when we encounter those outside of our group. When we encounter the rare, indefinable, personality we have been taught to go into panic mode.” This particular post, taken from a newsgroup I read, goes on in this vein for hundreds and hundreds of words.

How to avoid it:

– Do not make assumptions about your audience; in particular, do not assume your audience can read your mind, or understand the way you use words if you do so in a radically unconventional way.

– Be clear in your own head of what you plan to say before you say it. If you can not explain something to your grandmother, you probably don’t understand it yourself.

– If you must use words in an unconventional way, explain your usage. If you are using a metaphor that your audience may not follow, explain the metaphor.

– If you introduce something into your post which you believe is relevant (in the case of the post I cite above, it touches on everything from Hebrew numerology to clothing to mathematician John Nash), explain the relevance of this thing. You’re not going to win points and impress people by name-dropping or dropping references to things you think will impress your audience if those people or references are not clearly connected to your idea.