An Alternate Medium Style Guide
I’ve seen several “medium style guides” promoting habits I find irritating. Here’s what you should do instead, if you (for whatever reason) want to attract readers like me.
- Choose a title that properly describes what you are writing about. Overly clever titles are no better than clickbait titles; if I can’t determine the subject of your article from your title, I can’t determine whether or not it’s of interest. This is not to say that titles must be uninteresting; a brief look at the titles of academic papers, particularly in the humanities, shows an exemplary example of how titles can be both direct and humorous.
- Avoid embedding images or other content, unless absolutely required for understanding. It’s one thing to include important diagrams, and another thing entirely to abuse semi-relevant images as a means for breaking up the space. Images use up bandwidth and require extra scrolling for your reader, and often represent potential legal problems for authors; they are in no way an improvement over a vertical bar.
- Don’t artificially limit the length of your article to cater to lazy readers. While short articles may inflate your “read” metrics in Medium’s stats page, they also make that metric less meaningful and devalue the platform as a whole. Instead, write as much about the subject as is interesting. When covering a subject, you can’t know exactly what material a prospective reader will already be familiar with; the longer the article, the greater the chance that even a seasoned reader will come across truly novel material. If you write a short article (less than a five minute read), ensure that what you write truly is novel; otherwise, you have wasted your time and the reader’s, having failed to communicate anything except the idea that you are a shallow and unoriginal thinker.
- Sentence and paragraph size should be dictated by flow. The use of short sentences and short paragraphs does not necessarily make text more readable; usually, it just makes it longer without increasing the amount of information. With very dense information, the extra time it takes to read through the kind of fragmented & decontextualized prose that artificially short paragraphs and sentences produce can actually make reading it much harder: consider the kind of numeric tables found on tax instructions as an extreme example. The english language has an extremely rich set of tools for organizing ideas: understanding the meaning, usage, and behavior of such things as colons, semicolons, commas, independent and dependent clauses, and the passive and active voice produces much more expressive and informationally dense prose than the pseudo-Vonnegut that slavish adherence to period, line break, and active voice will give you. The world is full of short sentences and short paragraphs in short articles; taking proper advantage of the expressive range afforded by english will make you stand out.
- Bold and italic can be useful for emphasis, but are (like the period and the line break) blunt instruments. Do not rely upon typographical style where rhetorical style will suffice: rhetoric is more broadly applicable. Rhythm, alliteration, repeated phrases or patterns, puns, and careful use of the meanings implied but not denoted by idiomatic use of punctuation can all substitute for most uses of bold or italic.
- Cliches are uninteresting because they are familiar. Don’t even mention them.
- A direct argument is a weak argument: even a clear and complete description of one’s own position does not adequately identify or defend from potential counterarguments. A strong argument takes the form of a description of the strongest possible direct argument for the opposition, followed by an explanation of how that argument is flawed.
- Use your vocabulary. Your target audience is not dumb, and has access to all manner of dictionaries; while you shouldn’t use a long word where a short one will do, it is a mistake to reject a long or obscure word that can substitute for a whole sentence. Since most interesting words are not merely longer versions of short words but instead carry a whole vast array of connotations, connections, nuances, and echoes of historical usage, the use of an appropriate interesting word is almost always preferable to a more common near-match.
- Take advantage of, but do not rely upon, mirroring of well-known phrases. Much as with vocabulary, constructions can have baggage, and invoking that baggage can be a quick way to add extra dimensions of reading, at least for those readers who are familiar with the original source or with other usages of these constructions. However, because not all readers will recognize the construction (and an unknown construction is difficult to recognize and look up), your prose should be understandable without this extra information. Take care to ensure that the added dimension is useful rather than simply an indication of the size of your library: some constructions become overused or misused and eventually lose their utility. (As an example, I saw an article beginning “There is a spectre stalking…” in Breitbart: surely the reference is lost on that audience, and anyhow the article had nothing to do at all with Marxism; similarly, using “late capitalism” as a substitute for “capitalism” has almost become an idiom in some circles.) For an example of mirroring done well, take a look at The Society of The Spectacle.
- Don’t force things into lists that are not lists. While numbering things can give the reader an idea of what they’re getting into, numbering things that are not easily or clearly enumerable means that the reader’s heuristic has been foiled. Medium provides reading time estimates, and while these estimates are flawed, they are better than listicle-style titles for indicating the level of engagement expected of readers.