As you gain experience and wisdom (or perhaps just opinions) in a particular domain, you might wish to share what you’ve learned with others through blog posts, articles, or books. In the past 45 years I’ve written 10 books and more than 200 articles on software engineering, project management, chemistry, military history, self-help, and consulting. Oh, and a forensic mystery novel. Okay, so I’m not the world’s greatest writer, but I’ve picked up a few tricks along the way that you might find useful.
Find a Role Model
You might have favorite authors whom you find to be especially helpful, interesting, and enjoyable to read. Take the time to study their work and assess just why you like their writing. Then try to emulate some of those characteristics in your own work.
Many years ago, I realized that one of my favorite authors of software books and articles was a man named Steve; he’s also a good friend now. As I thought about it, I realized that Steve uses fairly short sentences in much of his writing, and he writes in a direct, conversational style. I also favor that informal writing style, although I confess to being somewhat long-winded by nature. My sentences can get wordy. I also tend to overuse adverbs, and I say “tend to” a lot. We all have our shortcomings. But Steve’s acclaimed writing resonated with me and presented a goal to strive for.
Cultivate a Simple Style
Once I recognized what I liked about Steve’s writing, I tried to steer my own style in that direction. I use the statistics from Microsoft Word’s grammar checker — part of the spell check feature — to provide guidance.
The grammar statistics report the average number of sentences per paragraph in the document, along with the average words per sentence and characters per word. The average number of characters per word should be around five when writing in English. I aim to keep the average words per sentence no higher than 20 and preferably fewer. Shorter words, sentences, and paragraphs all enhance readability.
The statistics report includes several readability measures. The higher the Flesch Reading Ease index, the easier the document is to read (duh). I aim for at least 40. The lower the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, the easier the document is to read. I keep my technical writing at a grade level of 12. For nontechnical writing, my goal is a grade level of eight to nine. Also, keep the number of passive sentences low. Sentences written in the active voice, where you can tell what entity is taking an action, are more direct and easier to understand than passive sentences.
If the statistics don’t come out like I want, I’ll revise the piece to simplify it and increase the readability. By way of example, here are the statistics for this article:
- 1374 words
- Average of 4.0 sentences per paragraph (fine)
- Average of 15.4 words per sentence (fine)
- Average of 4.6 characters per word (typical)
- Zero percent passive sentences (great)
- Flesch Reading Ease of 63.0 (excellent)
- Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 8.1 (perfect)
Readers respond to writing they don’t have to work hard to understand. They love direct, simple tutorials that teach techniques they can apply immediately. Readers appreciate clearly explained and thought-provoking concepts, examples, and opinions. If a reader must make multiple passes through a paragraph to figure out the author’s point, something’s wrong.
Some authors write as though they want their readers to know how smart they are, using big words, lengthy paragraphs, and convoluted phrasing. Nobody cares how smart you are. They just care if you’re helpful to them; hence, my interest in using a simple and conversational writing style.
Remove One Hundred Words
Being naturally wordy, I use a little technique to help me tighten my writing. Each time I make a review or edit pass through an article or a chapter of a few thousand words, I try to remove 100 words. For a shorter piece, say 1500 words or so, I might try to remove 50 on each pass.
I don’t always achieve that goal. Nonetheless, a constant focus on tightening helps me to deliver the maximum value per sentence to the time-strapped reader. You’d be surprised at how much you can take out and still say everything you want.
Listen to the Little Voice
The first quality improvement round for anything you write is your own critical review. After I’ve written a new article, book chapter, or blog post, I try to set it aside for a full day before I review it; longer is better. If you re-read something immediately after writing it, you don’t really review it — you mentally recite it. I like to let my memory of the piece decay for a while so I can look at it with fresher, less biased eyes. Sometimes, I will then see sentences that make me wonder what in the world I was thinking when I wrote them.
When I’m looking over my writing, occasionally I hear a little nagging voice (just one voice, fortunately). It says, “That part doesn’t work. Fix it or cut it out.”
I used to reply to myself, “Let’s see how the reviewers feel about it.” My outside reviewers invariably spotted that bit, and they invariably hated it. I’ve learned to trust that little voice and to fix the awkward chunk right away. The voice hasn’t been wrong yet.
Technical writing can be dry and tedious. It helps to brighten it up with bits of thoughtfully-selected humor and personal experiences. My technical publications include many true-life stories. These anecdotes make the content more tangible to the reader. When a reader can relate to an actual experience, pleasant or not, the point you’re making comes across as more real and hence more meaningful. Every story I share is true, whether it’s my personal experience or one related by a colleague.
I’ve collected countless stories from my consulting clients, who shared with me their challenges, frustrations, and successes. After relating one unhappy story, a client said, “Gee, I hope that won’t end up in your next book.” I replied, “Sure it will. Where do you think I get all these stories? I don’t make them up; I collect them.”
Of course, I anonymize all such stories. It’s not important how we learn a lesson — from doing something silly, from forgetting to do something important, or from a flash of brilliance — so long as we absorb, apply, and share the insight.
Fish for Compliments
As you develop your writing style, consider what kind of compliments from readers would mean the most to you. Then work to develop a style that elicits that sort of feedback.
Just this week, a reader commented on one of my blog posts: “I always enjoy your articles, as they provide so much insight and information in a simple and interesting way. I find that your books are also very user-friendly and practical.” Words like simple, interesting, user-friendly, and practical are music to my ears. It’s one thing to inspire with ideas, but in my technical writing I’m most interested in giving busy people useful techniques and the motivation to apply them.
Long ago, I wrote a column of tutorials on assembly language programming — not the simplest topic — for a computer magazine. I met a fan who told me, “When I work through your articles, I feel like you’re standing there explaining them to me.” It was delightful to hear that at least one person felt that I was communicating through the written word in just the way I wanted to.
I was educated as a scientist. The first major document I ever wrote was a PhD thesis in physical organic chemistry titled “Kinetics and Mechanism of Lithium Aluminum Hydride Reductions of Ketones.” (What could be more fascinating than that? Actually, it was pretty cool.) Scientists neither write nor speak like normal people. When I began writing on topics other than chemistry, it took me some time to un-learn how scientists write, to revamp my writing style to be more accessible.
One of the best compliments I ever got on my writing was from someone who said, “You don’t write like you have a PhD.” I was most pleased.
This article is adapted from Successful Business Analysis Consulting by Karl Wiegers. If you’re interested in requirements and business analysis, project management, software quality, or consulting, Process Impact provides numerous useful publications, downloads, and other resources.