When I started my professional career, more than 30 years ago, written communications were limited to business letters, signed by a select few officials. Ordinary staffers where I worked were allowed to draft correspondence, which was typed by a professional secretary, for a manager to sign. My sole attribution was my initials (“JES”) somewhere near the bottom of the page. Even with electric typewriters, turnaround time was slow, with days sometime passing before a communication went down to the mail room to be given to the post office.
Fast forward to the 21st century, where snail mail correspondence is so rare, I can’t remember the last time I got something in the box at work that wasn’t an advertisement, bill, or occasional reference manual, and everyone is empowered to generate their own communications. From email to forum posts to instant message, we’re all constantly writing to our co-workers, peers at other sites, and to vendors. As far as technical writing, I think we’re pretty good at opening a trouble ticket, describing a problem, and feeding data to support personnel as needed.
Is there a problem, then? As I’ve been working on the backlog of un-reviewed blogs, I’ve come across numerous areas of possible improvement, and thought I’d explain via a blog. When I’ve looked on SCN for blog help, it seems to be mainly around how to blog – how to get approval, what buttons to push, how to link, etc. There isn’t much on style. There was that absolutely classic Matt Kangas post on “Thoughts from a Forum Moderator” where he exclaimed the necessity of spelling words correctly and completely.
Some of what I’m about to say is covered in Blogging 101 (link at the end), though that wiki page mixes the mechanical “how-to” with the contextual “what” and “why” I’m talking about.
Here are rules I’d like bloggers to understand:
- Write as you want people to read, not as you want people to hear
- Proofread your sentences, your spelling, your tired and poor cliches
- Say less, not more (but don’t use ‘txt spk’)
- Don’t pitch a product or service, tell us how you built it or how you use it
- Get advice, and heed it. Use a muse, a mentor, or a trusted friend.
- Acknowledge and link to your sources
Write as you want people to read
This is absolutely the hardest of the above rules to obey. First, you need to understand how to cast your written voice in specific ways. Second, you need to interpret what the audience needs on a particular topic. Third, you need to keep your chosen voice steady through the work.
And if you don’t know what “voice” is, well, read this post titled “Finding Your Written Voice” – it’s geared toward memoir writing but should work fine for bloggers.
Proofread your sentences
This one is also harder than it sounds. Spell checking is pretty easy; word checking is harder. Making sure you said what you meant requires mental discipline and a lot of time. If you don’t have the time to produce quality work, ask yourself why you are blogging. The rest of us don’t have time to guess what you meant, or ask you to fix your mistakes (other than us moderators, I suppose).
And if your writing runs to pomposity (as mine does), lean on Samuel Johnson’s advice:
“I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils:’Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.'”
Say less, not more
I don’t believe this is the same as proofreading, where on careful analysis one can find more economical ways to say what you meant. This is more about planning, thinking before you write, and above all, leaving out anything unrelated to the topic at hand. I reviewed a blog on SCN recently where it seemed nearly half the content went through some ancient literature. Great stuff, but it would have been more effective if limited to no more than one paragraph.
These are blogs. We’re looking for your personal experience. If you thinly disguise an attempt to sell something, we’ll see right through your writing and never come back. Ever.
Your blog bio should tell us where you work. Of course you have to write about what you are working on – what else would you know about? Make a serious attempt to share the ups and downs of your project team work, and we’ll find it fascinating.
Get advice, and heed it
Junior bloggers will get the luck of the draw, and have their content reviewed by someone who may or may not know much about the subject matter. Reviewers should and will kick it back if the writing is unintelligible, full of jargon, or has run-on, rambling sentences. If your writing is marginal, your blog may be released and then the second tier, the wider SCN audience, rips into it. It’s happened to me, more than once. As I told Jon Reed, “I like to think I’ve benefited from the slings and arrows of numerous barbs.”
If you have a trusted mentor, great, use them. I often share my blog ideas with Jon Reed, Marilyn Pratt, Dennis Howlett, and others. Maybe another SAP Mentor would be willing to critique your work, or if you prefer someone in your office or area, ask around. Advice is really easy to get. Hard to apply, but easy to get.
Link to your sources
Having gone to a university than had an honor system, rules for term papers, and working with various technical and scientific journals for decades, it seems second nature to me how to quote and acknowledge source material. That doesn’t seem to hold true for everyone, though, and it’s been a learning moment for more than one of my mentees. It’s in the rules of engagement, so it’s quite easy for a moderator/editor to point out the right way.
Linking is more challenging. You’ll notice I linked 3 references above – one SCN blog, one online publication, and one classic, non-copyrighted quote.
I want to thank Jon Reed for musing with me on this topic. He liked my borrowing from Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the blog comment barb/barbarism analogy.
The title of this post comes from Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi; Twain was talking about steamboat pilots as well as newspaper editors (he was both), and said –
(You may note I linked to the Project Gutenberg free edition of the book, rather than the Google sort-of-free version. I highly recommend the book, and Project Gutenberg’s complete collection of free reading; one of the host sites is in my home town)
And, the SCN reference pages, etc.:
- Why don’t they let me blog? (from 2005, still getting hits)
- Getting Started With Blogs
- SCN Blog Guide
- Blog community guidelines
- Blogging 101
One last reference:
- Effective Writing for Engineers, Managers, Scientists, 2nd Edition, H.J. Tichy, 1988.
I went through the first edition of this book several times years ago; I bought the second edition used for $5 or $10 and am nearly through it. Heavy going, but worth every minute of study.