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Writing on Resource

I never write when I get a good idea. I only try to write when I find suitable resource to illustrate that idea. With proper resource, writing is fast and persuasive. Without resource, writing is a waste of time.

For about a year, I have had an idea to write an article about emails: what's the best way to start a conversation with someone you don't know. I knew how to explain it. But every time I set to writing that article, I stopped at the first example. It was too hard to create a believable letter to illustrate all of my ideas. I spent hours writing and editing, but never published any of those drafts.

Then one night I got an email from someone I didn't know. The moment I looked at it, I knew it was badly structured, without even reading. It looked like this:

Wow, I thought. I don't need to read it to see it's bad. How did I just learn that? Clearly, it looked messy and long. You don't write such things to people you don't know. Gotcha.

This letter illustrated what I had wanted to say for a long time. In 15 minutes I made a simple image to illustrate the principle:

I wrote two lines of text, threw in that image, and got myself a perfect article: it was short, clear and persuasive. The whole thing took 20 minutes to write.

My previous drafts had a good idea behind them, but no resource. There was no good example, no good illustration of my idea. Creating that illustration took time, and I never liked the result. Then suddenly a good example just kind of... floated by. So I grabbed it, and used it, and it was great.

Then I realized: I've been doing this for a long time:

As I edit articles at work, I collect elegant 'before — after' bits and use them in my editing courses.

I collect curious bits of text and layouts for my future projects and books.

People send me their ads for review. I use those ads as examples for my articles.

When I have a conflict with a client, it becomes a case study for my negotiations course.

This may seem counterintuitive, because normally you write towards a goal, not based on example. But writing towards a goal puts pressure on you, and to me writing is never better when under pressure.

Writing on resource feels better. Also, it's a hundred times faster.

2017   editing   persuasion   work

The Piano Lessons effect

Tim Urban is great at explaining. Here is a thing I liked in his article about Trump. Look at this bit:

“I hate everyone who voted for Trump—those stupid, racist, xenophobic fucks.”


People vote for hope and change when they’re in pain. When I watched the election last night, I didn’t see a bunch of assholes voting to be hateful, I saw a bunch of people going through a lot of suffering hoping for something better.

Which is why, if you’re a Hillary supporter, in addition to this being a time for disappointment and frustration, it should also be a time for reflection. Half your country voted for Trump. Over 50 million people—people with kids and parents and jobs and dogs and calendars on their wall with piano lessons and doctors appointments and birthday parties written in the squares. Full, three-dimensional people who voted for what they hope will be a better future for themselves and their family.

Tim is saying, people who voted Trump are not the stupid racist xenophobic fucks we think they are. They are just like us. Notice how we come to this conclusion without Tim actually saying ‘They are like us’.

How does he do that?

Relatable details

Look at this bit. Why the detail?

Over 50 million people—people with kids and parents and jobs and dogs and calendars on their wall with piano lessons and doctors appointments and birthday parties written in the squares.

With this detail, Tim makes Trump supporters real and similar to us, readers. But he doesn’t make that conclusion himself—he never says ‘Trump supporters are like us.’ He makes readers come to that conclusion by experiencing life through their eyes.

You experience their lives → you find they have similar experiences → you conclude they are like you → they are no longer the xenophobic fucks you thought they were.

And this is all done with the vivid details that we have all experienced: the piano lessons, the birthdays, the squares in your calendar. We believe this because we can imagine this. Tim persuades us through our own imagination.

Reverse effect

We can also use this effect in reverse. Let’s say Tim was trying to alienate Trump supporters. Then he would go with something like this:

Over 50 million people—people with employees and investors and board meetings and personal assistants and dressage and fundraisers and red carpet events.

The structure is the same. But the details are different: we can imagine them vividly, but we can’t relate to them. And because we can’t relate, the 50 million people are now alien. And it’s easy to hate the alien.

Once again, you won’t even need to say ‘These Trump supporters are different from us.’ Your choice of detail will make readers come to that conclusion all by themselves, driven by their own imagination.

How this works

There’s the tangible and the abstract.

Words like ‘wood’, ‘ground’, ‘stone’, ‘birthday’, ‘coffee’ or ‘glass’ relate to something we know from physical experience. You have seen, touched, smelled or otherwise experienced these words. When I say ‘coffee’, you remember the sense of taste and smell. When I say ‘birthday,’ you remember a perfect birthday, with smells and sounds and everything. There is a ton of sensory information behind these words. These are tangible.

Words like ‘community’, ‘virtue’, ‘pride’, ‘worry’, ‘task’ or ‘unity’ relate to abstract ideas. We don’t have the sensory information for these ideas. We know what ‘virtue’ means, but we can’t imagine it. These are abstract.

Your writing is more persuasive when it is based on the tangible details, rather than abstract concepts. That is only because we can picture the tanglble. And it’s easier to believe something we can picture:

Abstract Tangible
Over 50 million people—people with relatives and problems and pets and self-management, leisure activities and healthcare issues and social gatherings scheduled for the future. Over 50 million people—people with kids and parents and jobs and dogs and calendars on their wall with piano lessons and doctors appointments and birthday parties written in the squares.
Our new system makes processing orders faster and more accurate. Advanced voice recognition allows for keyboard-free input of any customer data to ensure high quality and reliability of your service. We help restaurant managers take delivery orders on the phone without touching the keyboard. The system listens to your clients’ delivery address, finds it on the map and makes sure it’s valid, so your delivery man never gets lost.

We only believe in things we can picture.
Use tangible details to paint the picture

Here’s some tangible stuff to serve as Facebook teaser:

2016   experience   persuasion

What this is about

Hi! My name is Max. I am an editor in Russia. I help businesses talk to their customers.

I created a school of simple, clear and persuasive writing in Russian. For the last seven years, I developed it for Russian editors. I've written three hundred articles, launched a proofing service, a school and a book. Next stop—help my fellow editors write simple, clear and persuasive text for readers outside Russia.

Born in Russia in 1988, to a family of construction engineers. PhD in Linguistics and Teaching English as a Foreign Language. As a native Russian, this is the smiliest he gets

The method: simple

My editing method is based on three ideas: simplicity, clarity and persuasion.

Simplicity means using the simplest words and simplest syntax possible. If you need to say 'talk to your customers', I'll always recommend using 'talk', not 'communicate', 'transmit', 'divulge' or 'enlighten'.

It's harder to miss when you use simple words. Especially when you or your reader don't speak English natively. Between sounding smart and speaking simply, I always recommend simple:

I will be attempting to provide guidance to fellow ink-slingers, notwithstanding the calamities of transitioning to a dissimilar linguistic system.I will try to help fellow editors, despite the difficulties of changing to a different language.
It is with great assurance that I proclaim the dictatorship of substance over the embodiment of a communicative act.I believe content is more important than style.
Nevertheless, laborious optimization of articulatory properties of written word is still required to improve the manyfold qualities of content consumption.Still, you need to work hard to make your writing readable and easy to understand.

Between sounding smart and sounding simple, always go with simple

The method: clear

Clarity means making ideas easy to understand. To achieve clarity, you will usually need to do three things: remove unnecessary ideas, get right to the point, and use structural elements: paragraphs, sections and headings. I'll talk more about clarity in future articles.

However strange it might feel, many people struggle with a notion as simple as starting with what they actually have to say. This might be due to a number of issues, including upbringing, schooling or a multitude of typically Eastern cultural traditions to start any communication with a preamble.Starting with what's important is hard for many people.
It is a long way to go, and many topics to cover, including the ones related to clarity, but in time I hope to expand the scope of these articles to cover all.I will talk about clarity in future articles.

Remove clutter, put important stuff first, add headings and quotes. Like this one

The method: persuasive

Persuasion means making sure readers agree with you, or at least consider your ideas. I persuade with stories, examples, illustrations, and other kinds of proof. You will notice that every idea in this article is supported by examples.

Persuasive text avoids abstract ideas. It needs to be grounded in reality and offer relatable examples.

Abstract, unpersuasiveGrounded and persuasive
Clear and simple writing, albeit hard and complicated, is key to successful communication.

However, the tradition of teaching English as a foreign language, especially on higher levels, is hardly adjacent to the ideas of simplicity and clarity.

Many non-English-speakers tend to create smart-sounding text that lacks the properties required for effective communication. Oblivious to the fact, they build on the complexity and clutter, making the communication even less effective.
It's hard to write in English as it is. Especially when it's not your mother tongue, with all the vocabulary and grammar. Heck, the 16 tenses alone are hard enough.

What's worse—nobody ever teaches you to write clearly. If anything, your teacher will make you use smarter words and trickier grammar, not simpler. Traditional English teaching, as I know it from Russia, makes you sound smart, not clear.

I've seen many English-speaking Russians overcomplicate what they write. We try to sound smart in presentations and ads, we send mind-numbing letters and reports. Many take pride in this complexity, while their readers struggle.

Use examples and proof to persuade

This is non-fiction, for non-native speakers

My method is only designed for non-fiction: what you write for business, advertising, websites, apps and interface. To some extent—for journalism, blogging and generally writing for the web.

My method applies to people who are not native speakers: say, a Russian editor writing up a press release for Europe, or a Ukrainian designer building apps for clients in America. (See what I did there? Examples!)

As a native Russian, I realize I can never truly understand English, no matter how many episodes of Sherlock I watch. So I am not looking to teach English to English natives. But I sure hope some of my advice comes in handy.

What now

More articles on clarity, simplicity and persuasion coming up.

Follow @deathbypassive to stay updated

2016   clarity   editing   persuasion   simplicity