This isn’t a reference to litigation, or any of the legalities of blogging (for things of that flavour, read Friday’s post on a blogging code of practice). Nope, this is about writing style. It’s about being clear and simple.
The title ‘No Lawyers Please’ comes from people I’ve worked with in the past, who seem to be completely normal people until they put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard. Suddenly, their whole character changes. Whereas they speak like anybody else, they write as though they are Charles Dickens or a High Court judge. They have perhaps been taught by somebody who believed that unless a word had 15 syllables, it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.
I would have been fairer if I’d called this ‘No educational policymakers please’, because I’ve noticed that there’s definitely a pattern to announce new policies in a way that befuddles with language. And looking in the mirror, perhaps ‘No technologists please’, because we’re also guilty of using language which is hard to work out and full of acronyms.
The key to remember when you blog is that most people look at it on their screen, and will scan it quite quickly before they move on to another thing. So you have to grab them quickly, and not put them off too soon.
My quick rules for this are:
- Be as personable as you possibly can (often a challenge for me!)
- Write the way you speak
- Don’t use language to make you look smart
- Drop the superlatives if they’re not deserved
- If it’s confidential don’t write it down
Be as personable as you possibly can
Well, I know that this can be tricky. How much of your life and self do you want to talk about? How many people are interested? I think we all make our own decisions on this, but I’d say that if you think about your reader, you shouldn’t go wrong. For example, if I write about my children, it is within the context of the story that I am telling.
- When my eldest daughter got told by her teacher that the video she had produced for the World War II timeline homework had to be redone as photos stuck to cardboard so it could be ‘assessed properly’, I thought that was relevant to my blog in context
- When my youngest came home from school having spent her Science lesson counting Tesco vouchers, I didn’t rush to my blog to wail about it.
Get the line right and you’ll hopefully write a good read and come across as a person not just a literary genius. Get it wrong, and you could be blogging into a vacuum.
Honesty here: I have no idea if I get it right or wrong, but sometimes when I’ve wandered too far either way, I’ve had comments, but often I get people talking to me about something I’ve written in a positive or constructive way, which I take as being good feedback.
Write the way you speak (and don’t use language to make you look smart)
Just use the same language. The web has a very short time span in which to grab your readers, and hold them. Shorter words and simpler sentences help. This rule doesn’t apply in every situation – but if you think your readers are coming through, on their way somewhere else, then the easier it is to understand what you’re saying, the more likely they’ll stick around or come back.
There are some tools you can use to help with this. The easiest one is the SMOG (simplified measure of gobbledygook) test, which gives you a rating for your readability. You simply paste in your text, and then it will calculate the SMOG level. And you can use that to work out if what you’ve written will be understood by your reader.
It isn’t foolproof, but it is a handy and simple test.
NIACE have a online SMOG calculator, which is straightforward. Basically, the lower your SMOG score, the more readable things are. They also publish a great readability booklet called “How to produce clear written materials for a range of readers” which covers much more than writing style.
For general guidance, here are some typical SMOG levels (generally, the lower the number, the easier it is to read):
- The Sun – 14
- The Daily Express – 16
- The Telegraph and The Guardian – 17+
I did a couple of quick tests on some materials. I thought I’d point the finger at myself first, by testing the other posts in this series:
- Good Blogging Guide Part One – 18
- Good Blogging Guide Part Two – 15
- Good Blogging Guide Part Three– 15
- Good Blogging Guide Part Four– 17
- Good Blogging Guide Part Five – 16 (that’s this one)
I’m not unhappy with 15-17, that’s about right for writing to people in education (degree-level) but if I was writing for a very wide audience, I’d like to aim for 14-15. And considering the booklet on Readability scores 17, then I guess it’s okay)
And to make my point about educational policy language:
- Becta website on Information Management in schools – 24
- Becta website on Data Handling in schools – 22
- DCSF ‘Protection of Children’ – 21
And finally, the way to tell if you’re using language to make yourself look smart? Personally, if I have to ask somebody a spelling then I know I’m using a word I don’t normally use…
Drop the superlatives if they are not deserved
I remember when I first joined Microsoft, after 20+ years of working within British companies, I found it a little odd that colleagues would declare things awesome or super-exciting. Especially when coming from a workplace where good was counted as high praise. Over time, I’ve adjusted, and have even gone so far as to describe one thing as cool (but my daughter stopped that straight away).
Worldwide research has shown that the UK education audience don’t really like unjustified superlatives. So if something is good, then say it’s good, not amazing.
Of course, if something is brilliant, then say so. But if you call everything brilliant, you’re probably going to lose readers faster than gaining them.
And don’t get me started on people who use too many exclamation marks in emails! And people who use three!!! At the end of every sentence!!! Doesn’t it make you cry???
If it’s confidential don’t write it down
No more to say on this. People who’ve broken this rule and been found out never need reminding twice. If you need it, then see Good Blogging Guide Part Four for more context.