How to Unlearn Everything You Learned about Writing in School

How to Unlearn Everything You Learned about Writing in School

Writers, our industry has a problem: education.

If you learned anything about writing in high school or college beyond grammar, you likely learned how to write a five-paragraph essay — the bane of my existence as an editor in digital media.

Tired English educators so strongly imprint this structure on a student’s brain as the One and Only Correct Way to Write, it’s all I can do in my role to peel it off and start fresh to help a writer create something appropriate for an online audience.

The format consists of these familiar parts (trigger warning for all of your late nights finishing that paper due for a 9 a.m. class.) outlined by the Guide to Grammar & Writing:

  1. An intro paragraph, including a hook and a thesis statement.
  2. Three body paragraphs, detailing one argument each.
  3. A conclusion that mirrors your introduction, including a restatement of the thesis.

The endurance of this format, writes Steven Lynn in his textbook Rhetoric and Composition, “certainly owes something to its reassuring simplicity: ‘Just follow this neat blueprint; just get some materials and put them in place.’”

That’s fine for the classroom. But educators need to do a way better job of teaching students that’s the only place this format belongs.

Because they don’t, many new writers fall back on this juggernaut when they start writing for publication. Bad news from an editor: It makes you look like an amateur, or worse, a bad writer.

A blog post is not a 5-paragraph essay

The intro-body-conclusion format, according to Lynn, dates to the early days of rhetoric  — we’re talking Ancient Greece — and applies originally to speech writing. Centuries later, Dale Carnegie made the guidance famous with his oft-quoted, “Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.”

The age-old advice is important for a speech, because the audience doesn’t have your words in front of them. In writing, we call it redundant (or, we should).

Readers can scan a piece of writing, go back to the beginning, jump to end, whatever they need to get the most value out of a piece. In blog posts and on web pages, in particular, this behavior is well-documented in studies like this one from UX research and consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group.

It means repetition is a waste of space and unnecessarily taxing to the digital reader.

What you didn’t learn about writing for digital media

In a blog post or article published online, you don’t have to “tell the audience what you’re going to say” or “tell them what you’ve said.”

Just “say it.”

Give your readers the information they’re looking for — that you promised in the headline — in a format that helps them quickly digest and evaluate it.

Here are a few basic ways to break up with the five-paragraph essay and write for a digital audience:

Format for scanners

Blog readers came to your site for an answer to a specific question. To serve that reader, organize your writing so it quickly lets them know you have that answer.

The medium affords you the formatting to do that. A strong headline, clear sub-heads, bolded text, plenty of bullet points, tables and other visual cues let your reader scan the piece before reading it in full and learn exactly “what you’re going to say.”

Use these cues to engage the reader, earn their trust and encourage them to stick around and enjoy the full piece.

Write an inverted pyramid

Because digital readers drop off throughout your piece, journalism’s “inverted pyramid” format fits blog posts well. It starts with the most important information and gradually whittles a story down to its most granular and least important details to ensure readers get the gist of a story even if they leave before finishing.

But the format is kind of a bust for your most engaged readers. If a piece gets boring as they make their way down the page, what incentive do they have to keep reading?

To keep readers engaged, place what Roy Peter Clark, a Poynter Institute senior scholar, describes in his book “Writing Tools” as “gold coins” throughout your story.

“Reward the reader with high points, especially in the middle,” Clark writes.

This lets you open with vital information, but also pique a reader’s interest throughout the piece to push them through to the end.

Include a strong nut graf

The “nut graf,” which, Chip Scanlan explains for Poynter, “delivers a promise of the story’s content and message,” plays a similar role to an essay’s thesis statement. It tells the reader your point.

Unlike a thesis, however, the nut graf doesn’t summarize what you’re about to say. Instead, it tells the reader what’s in it for them. While the rest of your piece will share the what, who, when, where and how, the nut graf shares why they should care.

Be concise

“College [writing] taught me how to turn a one-sentence idea and inflate it into a one-page idea — which I had to quickly unlearn in the professional sphere,” communications consultant Tamara Murray told me in a tweet.

Sound familiar?

In professional writing, your readers don’t have minimum word-count requirements, and they don’t reward verbosity. Don’t waste their time with repetition or wordy sentences.

Do your best instead to turn one-page ideas into one-sentence ideas — and watch how strong your writing becomes.

Skip the conclusion

Warning: You might have to contend with your editor on this one. Opinions vary. Mine is that conclusions are hard to write and not worth the effort.

The Nielsen Norman Group data says less than 5% of readers will ever get to the bottom of your article. Why tear your hair out finding a creative way to “tell them what you’ve said”?

If you follow my preceding advice, your intro and nut graf have given them the gist, and your formatting clearly outlines and summarizes the content. Let your reader move on.

When you’re done sharing information, just stop writing.

Photo via BlurryMe / Shutterstock 

Filed Under: Craft

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