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Write like a friend

You know how it is when you click on a topic, new to you, and it takes you to a blog on a company’s website? You expect it’s going to help you to understand.

And then, before you’re finished the second sentence, you’re lost. It’s full of unfamiliar words and phrases. They mean nothing. They’re words belonging to a circle of expertise, but not yours, or you wouldn’t be there.

This seems to be especially true when the topic is something technical or complicated. It feels like a textbook, or a closed club with its own secret language, or as though written by aliens.

It could be because blogs are sometimes written, not by writers (who should be writing them) but by technicians, developers, or salespeople. These are clever people, for sure ‒ often brilliant. They know their subject inside out. But they’re not writers. It’s not their craft, not what they do. And so their message is technical, overstated, jargony.

If you’re in the position of having to write such a thing ‒ a blog, a report, a speech, a description, even a book of instructions, and you don’t have a writer by your side, do what writers do and make it something most people, at whatever knowledge level, enjoy reading.

Here are some age-old writers’ tricks:

  • Write as though you’re visiting a friend. You might be going for a walk, or taking a leisurely bike ride, or chatting over a cup of coffee. You’re saying something your friend has never heard before. You explain, you give examples, you speak in simple terms. You speak in your own voice. You don’t use jargon. You speak in common, shared, everyday terms. You don’t blast your message. You just talk.

  • Start with a simple, short, intriguing first sentence.

  • Think of your message in images and analogies. Sketch a mental picture for your friend. Is the thing you’re trying to describe like a box? Like boxes within a box? Like a circle? A book, a play, a work of art? A menu, a line of music, a colour? Like a jumble of traffic on the highway at rush hour, or more like a sunset?

  • Tell a story. There should always be a story in your message, even if it’s subtle. Tell your friend about someone using the thing you’re describing ‒ how it solved a problem, how it made the world better, how it gave hope or inspiration.

  • Listen to everyday conversations. Really listen. If you can, write them down or record them so you can listen again. Most people do not “pontificate” or lecture. They just talk. The voices most appealing, and listened to most earnestly, are clear, empathetic, gentle, casual, down-to-earth. They say something of value, not just words to impress others.

  • Keep your sentences as short as you can. Remove adverbs, or “ly” words. Use few adjectives. Try not to use the word “that”. It’s tricky, and it takes practice, but you’ll see how it forces you to tighten up your sentences and make everything easier to read.

  • Paragraphs should be short, too. This is always true, but more so for words on a screen. Eyes (and readers) are lazy. They don’t like blocks of text.

Write like a friend, an empathetic, tuned-in teacher. Connect. If you sound like a robot rattling jargon, your readers will just hit “off”, and it’s as if you were never there.

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