Good writing is largely a matter of motivation and editing. What motivates people to write well? What skills are needed to polish writing? Unless you’re writing purely for the joy of self-expression, it’s likely that you want your writing to have some sort of effect in the real world. In other words, you want your writing to be not merely “good,” but effective.
Effective writing that succeeds in the real world is a key theme I try to communicate to my readers, live audiences, and coaching clients. Too often people get caught up in the process and style of writing, and lose sight of the ultimate goal (desired effect). Similarly, writing experts and teachers often focus too heavily on issues such as style, grammar, outlining, and various levels of drafts leaving desired effects to be handled as an afterthought.
I’ve given this matter a great deal of thought. In my view, effective writing comprises three core characteristics…
1. EFFECTIVE WRITING IS ENGAGING
In general, reading is a fairly passive activity. Readers sit still, move their eyes back and forth, and absorb information to the extent possible given their existing level of interest, familiarity, and concentration. This is why it’s rare that writing has any real-world effect other than increasing the reader’s store of information (usually temporarily).
In order to have the effect of influencing your readers’ opinions, enhancing their decision process, or inspiring them to take more direct and specific action, you must engage their attention. That is, you must help them feel actively involved in the topic of your writing both at the beginning of your document and throughout its course.
Picture “engage” in the sense of gears turning. Your writing should provide nuggets of relevance which reflect your audience’s perspective. Readers can mentally “latch on” to these nuggets like the teeth of a gear. By placing these nuggets of relevance throughout your document (ideally in most paragraphs), you will help readers move through your writing more easily, as well as maintain interest.
The whole point of engaging your audience is to foster momentum and motivation in your readers.This is what ultimately makes action possible.
2. EFFECTIVE WRITING IS EFFICIENT
No one has infinite time or attention. In order for your document to communicate well enough to have the effect you desire, it must respect the amount of attention your audience is willing to offer.
The big limiting factor here is time. Assuming you can engage your audience’s interest, how long will they probably be willing or able to pay attention? Your total document length should not exceed the amount of material your audience realistically will read.
Therefore, before you even begin writing, estimate how many minutes your audience will probably spend reading your document. Then multiply the number of minutes by an average reading speed of 200 to 350 words per minute. This will give you a target word count.
Your document (including introduction and conclusion) should not exceed this word count for any reason. If you run longer, you’re not just wasting words you risk overwhelming your audience. When readers are overwhlemed, they disengage.
Which reading speed to choose as a multiplier? The statistics on average reading speed vary. This is one point on which you need to know your audience more than rely on statistics. In general, if I’m writing for a more general adult audience, I usually choose 250 as the multiplier. For a business/professional audience, I usually choose 300 as the multiplier. Also, if the material is rich in detail, I tend to choose a lower multiplier. You choose what works for your audience. But if you’re unsure, it might help to check your own reading speed. That’s useful context.
EXAMPLE: Say I’m writing an article for a popular magazine about new types of nuclear reactors. I’m just giving overview material and pros/cons, not a lot of technical detail. I expect that if I succeed in engaging my readers, they’ll spend a maximum of five minutes reading that article. So I calculate: 5 minutes X 250 wpm = 1250 words. Therefore, my article should not run longer than 1250 words.
If I were writing on the same topic and at the same level of detail for an audience of energy-industry professionals (say, for a trade magazine rather than a popular magazine), I’d expect that the readers probably would stay interested a little longer maybe seven minutes, instead of only five. If I were to offer the same level of detail (overview and comparison, rather than technical or economic detail), These people might also read a bit faster maybe 300 wpm. In this case, my target document length could be as much as 2100 words (7 minutes X 300 wpm).
However, if I were to delve into a more detailed discussion of technology or economics or various reactor designs, I’d expect they’d have to read more slowly to absorb it all just 200 or 250 wpm. This would yield a target document length of 1400 to 1750 words.
Might some readers desire more content? Sure. So put that in separate documents, or cite resources for further information. Under no circumstances should you cram more text into a document than your audience would realistically read in one sitting. And if you ever think you’ll have more than 10 minutes of a reader’s undivided attention, you’re kidding yourself.
3. EFFECTIVE WRITING IS READABLE
Readable writing flows well and is easy to comprehend. It does not force the reader to think hard in order to unravel the meaning of a sentence or the point of a paragraph. It uses good grammar and plain, precise wording to avoid confusion. It does not ramble or dally. Every word, and every phrase, adds value from the reader’s perspective.
To some extent, readability is a matter of efficiency. As a writer, you should get right to the point and not use any more words than necessary to make your point. Style tricks such as using active verbs, eliminating unnecessary prepositional phrases, and dividing or shortening long sentences can help here.
Readability is also a matter of rules. Grammar and punctuation rules exist to provide a uniform reference that helps readers interpret how words relate to each other. These rules aren’t arbitrary, but neither are they the be-all and end-all of effective writing. As a writer, it’s best to always follow rules of grammar and punctuation but remain aware that your goal is to communicate effectively.
If grammatical rules force you into cumbersome verbal gymnastics, break them! Or even better, look for a simpler yet grammatically sound way to make your point. Just be sure that if you break grammatical rules, that you break them carefully and throughtfully, in a way that communicates more effectively. Ignore the protests of picky grammarians. Most of the time, picky grammarians aren’t your target audience.
The best way to gauge the readability of your writing is to read it aloud. The ear often catches what the eye misses. This is the best way to catch awkward phrasing, mismatched verb tenses, rambling sentences, and other glitches in the reading experience.
THE REWARDS OF BUILDING MOMENTUM
If you succeed in making your writing engaging, effective, and readable, you’ll see results in the real world. You’ll probably get more comments and followup questions from your readers. You’ll probably enjoy a wider audience, because you work will get passed around or linked to more often.
Best of all, you might be able to see evidence that your readers are taking action which you helped spur. This is the best reward, and the most compelling motivation,for any writer. Fortunately, it’s often easier to achieve this goal than you might expect.
If you understand your audience and can help them understand your message, the cycle of mutual motivation can carry both you and your readers far. They are motivated to act, and you are motivated to write more. Actions may speak louder than words, but words your words – also have power to affect the real world, through your readers.