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Writing Clearly for Fun and Profit...

...or, how to make sure your LiveJournal, mail list, and newsgroup posts don't just get skipped over by your audience.

Forums like Weblogs and mailing lists are written media. In these forums, we see nothing of what people are save for what they write. In any written medium, people who write clearly and distinctly, and who use language precisely and in an easy-to-understand way, will likely be read more often and given more attention than people who do not.

Anything you do that makes your messages harder to read or harder to understand will make it more likely that people will not pay any attention to anything you have to say. The written word is the only thing you have here; if you do not use it well, then your ideas, no matter how good they may be, will be disregarded.

There are many things that people do which make their messages difficult to read--and everything that makes a message difficult to read will cause some people not to read it.

The worst offenders are:

1. using runonsentences that are not properly spaced.especially when there are no spaces after the punctuation,when you do this with commas,it gets really,really,really hard to read.this makes everything run together,in a mess that is almost impossible to extract meaning from.really.

How to avoid it:

- Put a space after every piece of punctuation. Notice that a space follows the period at the end of a sentence, and follows a comma within a sentence.

- Do not use run-on sentences. If you are expressing two different thoughts, use two (or more) sentences.

2. Putting all the mass of text in one big lump. I guarantee, this is one of the worst things you can do.

How to avoid it:

- Break your thoughts up into paragraphs. Put double-spaces between the paragraphs. By breaking up your text, you make it far, far easier to understand.

3. Using AOL cht-spk or 1337-5p34k. Using terms like "u" unstead of "you," "ppl" instead of "people," and so on makes your message much more difficult to parse; as a general rule, I almost never read messages that use these styles of abbreviations; especially when they are combined with jargon or other abbreviations that are not immediately obvious. Add emoticons and the like to the mix, and you have an impenetrrable mess. Remember, your goal is to communicate; do not create artifical barriers to this communication.

4. Using the D/s writing convention invented in some of the more obnoxious online BDSM chatrooms and, unfortunately, spreading like typhus or bubonic plague throughout much of the rest of the Internet community. I'm referring, of course, to the use of hybrid upper and lowercase letters when referring to a group of people that may include folks who identify as dominant and submissive: "W/we would like to ask Y/you for a favor. Please attend O/our combined play party and English grammar dissertation; it will be the best time Y/you will ever have outside an insurance seminar." I'm waiting for the day people begin applying this grammatic monstrosity to individuals who are switches: "I/i am a S/switch, which means I/i can be Dominant or submissive."

How to avoid it:

- Don't. Seriously. Just don't do this. I/i M/mean I/it. I/i automatically disregard A/any message from A/anyone who writes like T/this. A/always.

5. Using metaphors that are only obvious to you, but are not obvious, or even decipherable, to anyone else. "Well, if you think about the implications of teleology as applied to the political situation in Nazi Germany in 1943, you will immediately see that life is a battlefield seen through endless masses of Jell-O." What?

Some metaphors can be figured out from context; if a restaurant has signs on the restroom doors reading "Popeye" and "Olive," most adult Westerners can figure it out from social context. If the signs read "Turtles" and "Tortoises," then you have a problem.

Some people think in metaphor more easily than others, but even so, a metaphor that relies on some connection or association known only to you and your fifth-grade science teacher, and nobody else in the world, will not succeed for anyone. Often, the cynical side of me suspects that some people, particularly in some parts of the New Age community, use incredibly flowery, over-the-top metaphor merely to impress themselves, or to conceal the fact that their central idea is weak.. (I see this on the World Polyamory Association mailing list from time to time, for example.)

An actual, real-world example: "Not only have the fnord weavers exploited the normal Human needs for love, acceptance, shelter, belongingness and justification by making us feel that we must join one of the state-sanctioned types, they also exploited and reinforced our natural xenophobia when we encounter those outside of our group. When we encounter the rare, indefinable, personality we have been taught to go into panic mode." This particular post, taken from a newsgroup I read, goes on in this vein for hundreds and hundreds of words.

How to avoid it:

- Do not make assumptions about your audience; in particular, do not assume your audience can read your mind, or understand the way you use words if you do so in a radically unconventional way.

- Be clear in your own head of what you plan to say before you say it. If you can not explain something to your grandmother, you probably don't understand it yourself.

- If you must use words in an unconventional way, explain your usage. If you are using a metaphor that your audience may not follow, explain the metaphor.

- If you introduce something into your post which you believe is relevant (in the case of the post I cite above, it touches on everything from Hebrew numerology to clothing to mathematician John Nash), explain the relevance of this thing. You're not going to win points and impress people by name-dropping or dropping references to things you think will impress your audience if those people or references are not clearly connected to your idea.

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Comments

( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
cunningminx
Jan. 27th, 2006 06:56 pm (UTC)
THANK YOU for saying this! The D/s stupid-ass capitalization is a particular pet peeve of mine. I'm particularly unfond of those who take it to such extremes that They Capitalize any Word in a Sentence that they feel is Important.

Rule: if you can't express it effectively in words, you won't be able to express it any better with capitalization.

Grrr, indeed.
datan0de
Jan. 27th, 2006 09:50 pm (UTC)
Agreed. And might I add that your userpics are almost as delightful as your podcast? :-)
toomuchwine
Jan. 27th, 2006 11:12 pm (UTC)
Amen!
serolynne
Jan. 27th, 2006 07:09 pm (UTC)
But why even bother writing at all? Can't we just sit calmly and everything we need to know will come to us?

*duck*
tacit
Feb. 2nd, 2006 12:42 am (UTC)
heh. Thanks for reminding me. I have a rant brewing about that, too...
roaming
Jan. 27th, 2006 07:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the perk-me-up. Instructive, and very very entertaining. :-)

But I don't understand your complaint: I, for one, always go into panic mode when I encounter a rare, indefinable personality. ;->
lefthand
Jan. 27th, 2006 07:55 pm (UTC)
I personally look at writing style of people as fair warning. Someone who is so servile that can't even write properly doesn't get consideration. Someone who can't be bothered to complete a whole word is unlikely to be a considerate lover. If you read the signs, the information is always there.
scien
Jan. 28th, 2006 09:36 am (UTC)
does that also count for people who have genuine problems writing? (dyslexia or what have you).

I agree in general though, I hate lazy writing. I even write out texts in full good English :P

I'm really amazed by some people who do my course (English Language and Literature, at a prestigious uni) who write essays beautifully but when faced with a text message or email revert to AOL-speak. Eww.
lefthand
Jan. 28th, 2006 06:42 pm (UTC)
There's a huge difference between an actual problem and being lazy. There is also a difference between someone who simply isn't trying and someone who is working with complications.
I suck at spelling, Always have (spent way too much of my youth getting high). I work around it as best I can and manage to communicate the bulk of what I am trying to say. My pet peeve is people who are so limited in their intellectual ability that they focus on spelling or grammer rather than addressing the actuall issue presented. I am aware of my failings, that is why I surround myself with beautiful women with english backgrounds.
gushi
Jan. 27th, 2006 09:20 pm (UTC)
May I add one more minor point...
For the love of god, everything from the LiveJournal client to unix shell accounts now have spell checkers.

If your'e 20something years old, and your'e a bad speler, you shuld probbably know it by then and start useing the tool.

gaycowboys
Jan. 28th, 2006 02:20 pm (UTC)
Re: May I add one more minor point...
In defense of those of us who learned that spelling had nothing to do with intelligence in the 4th grade and then promptly gave up on ever learning how to spell:

Livejournal's spell checker is irritating and slow to use. If you use a word processor that *does* have a spell checker and copy it over, you'll also copy over things like smart quotes that you then need to go through and edit. If you are using a program that has a spell checker, but you're talking about something that isn't in the spell checker, or you're using a lot of names, it can get really tiresome to skip skip skip skip -- oh wait! I wanted to change that one.. where was it again?

It takes me long enough to write as it is. Even though I know I don't spell well, I don't usually use spell checkers for the sake of efficiency, and just hope that my audience can look past it.
tacit
Feb. 2nd, 2006 12:44 am (UTC)
Re: May I add one more minor point...
"If you are using a program that has a spell checker, but you're talking about something that isn't in the spell checker, or you're using a lot of names, it can get really tiresome to skip skip skip skip -- oh wait! I wanted to change that one.. where was it again?"

I like the real-time spell checker built into Word, and the similar systemwide spell checker built into OS X. It watches as you type, and underlines words you don't recognize in red. That way, you can just glance at what you're typing and spot the words that might be typos, without needing to actually run the clumsy spell checker that interrogates you about every word it's unsure of.
perky_bear
Jan. 27th, 2006 10:11 pm (UTC)
I would add proofreading everything to your list of dos and don'ts. I write much better when I work up as statement in my regular word processor and then paste it into LiveJournal.
tacit
Feb. 2nd, 2006 12:45 am (UTC)
I'm inclined to agree with you, though I'll state for the record that I'm a lazy writer and almost never proofread my own work.
feorlen
Jan. 27th, 2006 11:34 pm (UTC)
Please, sir, may I ask your opinion of Gender Neutral Pronouns?

{settles in with Raisinettes and popcorn}
zaiah
Jan. 28th, 2006 08:10 am (UTC)
*snickers* 'Goobers or Raisinettes.. Ain't that the eternal question?'
tacit
Feb. 2nd, 2006 12:45 am (UTC)
Gah.
peristaltor
Jan. 27th, 2006 11:47 pm (UTC)
Amen. If you want to play in the English language playground, you have to play by the English language playground rules.

"Not only have the fnord weavers. . . ."

Oh, my, Fnord is an actual word? I thought my brother made it up!
tacit
Feb. 2nd, 2006 12:48 am (UTC)
I was first exposed to the word when i met Robert Anton Wilson (author of the Illuminati books) at a science fiction convention. Believe it or not, the word Fnord has a Wikipedia entry.
ladyoflourdes
Jan. 28th, 2006 04:50 pm (UTC)
"- Don't. Seriously. Just don't do this. I/i M/mean I/it. I/i automatically disregard A/any message from A/anyone who writes like T/this. A/always."

I love you for this. Really, I do. Now... Can you enforce it, please?
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )