You have a technical blog and you might have built it from scratch.
You wrote a bunch of great tutorials. Your posts are perfect. You are a smart person and you want to show your developer expertise.
There is only one problem: no one is reading what you write.
Do you want to know the answer? It’s going to hurt.
Here it goes:
“No one cares about you." 😮
It sucks, right? Hold on. Let’s take a deep breath. it’s true and it’s not a bad thing.
We do care about you and we’re going to help you.
First, let’s understand why the way you write is not effective. This post is a summary of the video of the class “The Craft of Writing Effectively” by Larry McEnerney, from the University of Chicago’s Writing Program.
Why it’s hard to write effectively
What do you do when you find a text hard to understand or not relevant to you?
First, you slow down. You re-read sentences or entire paragraphs. You get confused and frustrated. If you need to continue reading the text because you need the information, you keep reading. Otherwise, you give up.
That’s probably what is happening in the reader’s mind that gets to your blog.
The lesson “The Craft of Writing Effectively” is targeted at academic experts who can’t get their papers accepted, but the gems of this class apply to everyone who writes.
Professor Larry says that we write for two main reasons: first, to help us think. Especially when we work with complex things, writing helps with our thinking.
The second main use of writing is to change the way readers see the world.
When you write for someone else to read, you have to stop thinking about rules and start thinking about readers. Your writing is not to communicate anything about you; it’s to change the way your readers think.
According to Larry, schools and universities train us to write essays. The problem is that these essays are evaluated under rule-governed training, for example, texts need to be clear, concise, persuasive, etc.
Content can be clear, new, original, and still be useless! Rules don’t matter if the context is irrelevant.
We learned to write to show that know what we’re talking about. That we have the required knowledge for passing the assignments. That’s why we always try to explain things especially when someone says they don’t understand what we wrote.
Why did teachers read your papers? Have you ever asked yourself this question?
Because institutions paid them to care about us. It was their job. This stopped the moment you left school. We all have learned to write in a system where we are writing to readers that are paid to care about us.
Larry says our favorite quote of the class “you have been trained for years to write garbage”! It sucks.
In real life, readers are more interested in solving their problems or being entertained. Have you ever stopped reading something just because it had typos or because the style was not “conventionally and grammatically correct?”
No, you read it because it’s relevant to you. In other terms, you pay with your time and attention, which are precious skills these days.
How to learn how to write effectively
Start with the problem your audience is having that you can help with. What is it about that it’s important? Why should they care? Does that inconsistency cost them anything? Persuasion depends on what they doubt and not on what you think it’s cool.
The introduction is a quick version of why they are wrong, according to you. Because you might have proven to them that your work is valuable to them, they will continue reading your post.
Definition or explanation is not important. You are writing to people who already know this stuff. Skip explaining things and adding a background to the text.
Learn their rules, their code. Every community has its code. A code is a set of words that communicates value to a group. Create a word list with their code and use them in your writing. Without using their own words, you are very unlikely to create value and to be persuasive.
By definition, anything you write has the function to help your readers understand better something that they want to understand well.
Top 3 Takeaways
- Writing serves two main purposes. 1: to help you think. 2: to change your reader’s mind. It’s not about the writer, it’s about the reader. What’s in it for them?
- Know your readers. What problems are they having that you can help with? Remember, no one cares about the inside of your head unless you pay them to do so.
- Study your audience. Learn their code and create a word list to use in your writing. What do they read? What do they share? The answers are in front of you, pay close attention.
Next time you’re reading, try noticing why you continued reading it. Or why you stopped. Pay attention to how they write and how they bring new ideas to you. Did you notice words that you use often?
If you’re interested in contributing to an open-source project, for example, look at the merged Pull Requests. See how the contributors talk, ask for reviews, how they discuss the issue. Write a list of the words they use for you to use on your contributions.
It’s painful to know the truth but the truth will set you free, according to Jesus. We also struggled with this and it’s so much better when you are writing to help someone. You get out of your head and someone can use your work.
If you enjoyed this post, share it with someone who wants to learn how to write effectively.
Now, let’s write useful stuff!