Each week, Evan Peterson rounds up five stories from across the Web that scribes of all stripes should check out.
“The Elements of Style” reminds us to use simple words wherever simple words will work. Do not "procure" something. "Get" it. It's not a "compulsion." It's a "need." And so on. Well now there's scientific proof behind this point. One blogger broke it down for us this week.
Also, David McCullough's writing cabin is awesome, penning with a partner isn't so bad, and why we need to find another word for "content."
Use short words:
Have you ever read work where you thought the writer was trying too hard? Of course. We all have. And you likely thought that in part because the writer tried to use bigger words where smaller ones would fit. Now there's scientific proof: using bigger words make you sound dumb (or at least make you sound like a lesser writer). Matt Seidholz breaks down a 2005 academic study that asked students at Stanford to compare thesaurus-aided essays with those using simple words. In three different tests, students said simpler language made for better writing, and 86 percent said they had used bigger words to sound smarter themselves. We've all likely done that too, at some point. And this was academic writing. So for your next blog post, it's pretty safe to ditch the fancy stuff.
[RELATED: 24 complex words—and their simpler alternatives]
David McCullough's bookshop:
Writers need a good space to write. In this interview with the Paris Review, historian David McCullough describes his—a small shack on his Martha's Vineyard property called the "bookshop" where he pounds out manuscripts on a Royal typewriter next to a green banker's lamp, with a view of an old barn. There's no running water or telephone, and he asks his family to whistle as they approach so as not to disturb him. It sounds like the best place in the world to get some work done. The entire interview is worth a read. The author of biographies about John Adams, Harry Truman and Teddy Roosevelt goes in depth about his writing motto, and what got him started writing in the first place.
Writing with others:
It's not easy to write collaboratively. But when you find the right co-writer, the process can be one of the best reasons to be a writer. It's accountability in terms of timing and quality. John Kaag, a philosophy professor, explains in The New York Times
why he lives by it:
"So what is it, precisely, that a co-author gives you? Co-authors catch the things you can’t remove by yourself: your blind spots, your stylistic tics, your unfounded assumptions, your implicit biases, your inelegance, your vagueness. Your repetition."
So basically the same qualities of a good editor. Which brings up the question, is it better to have accountability to a co-writer, or to an editor?
[RELATED: Learn the "Four Cs" that are crucial to your internal writing at our one-day workshop in Chicago.]
These days, if you're reading an article, watching a video or staring at an image, you're not looking at any of these things individually. You're looking at "content". The word is a favorite of marketers, editors, videographers and pretty much anyone else not working in manufacturing. And for good reason. It's a catch-all. No one does just one thing anymore, so why refer to an entire collection of anything as "articles" or "videos"? On the Lingua Franca blog, William Germano writes about its overuse in another field:
"In academia, content seems to be a term no longer within our control. It’s become the flavorless flavor of the month, an apple of the eye of the administrative class."
Turns out, lectures, teaching methods and class questions are also content. Do we need to find another word?
The importance of subtitles:
This article from Book Riot
discusses why subtitles on books draw us in. The culprit for more subtitles and better written ones, according to this post, is the increasing desperation from publishers to sell books.
That's likely true, but what about subtitles and headlines in your own writing? It seems the same things that make a good non-fiction book subtitle—seductive words like "murder" or "revenge," and run-on sentences—also make for good headlines and sub-heads. The post speculates that SEO has something to do with the increased reliance on subtitles, so it's likely a good idea to adopt a similar strategy for your online work.
Evan Peterson is a writer based in Chicago, and the editor of OpenMarkets magazine at CME Group. He's on Twitter at @evanmpeterson.