Writing for the Modern Reader

By Megan Alms, a professional writing student at Taylor University.

You have about 10 seconds. Ten seconds to convince your reader that what you have to say is important. In the twenty-first century, readers don’t have the patience or attention span to labor over your words. These 10 methods will help make your writing clear and concise.

1. Use picture nouns and action verbs.

Choose strong words to create a vivid image. Rather than describing a “house,” call it a “shack” or a “mansion.” Instead of “hitting,” write about “slapping” or “tapping.”

2. Prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar.

When choosing your words, never use a fancy word when a plain word will work just as well. For example, if someone is “loquacious,” say they are “talkative.” If something is “humongous,” call it “large.”

This may seem to contradict the previous method, but hear me out. If your nouns and verbs are strong enough, you won’t need extravagant adjectives and adverbs. In fact, the more precise your noun or verb, the fewer adjectives and adverbs you will need.

3. Vary the lengths of your sentences.

Here’s the next tip. Listen to this paragraph. The words are choppy. Everything is the same. It’s boring to read. People don’t like this.

Instead, vary the lengths of your sentences. Listen. Isn’t it beautiful? Don’t be afraid to bend the rules a little to make your words sound melodic. Let sentences flow.

4. Keep your paragraphs short.

Readers don’t like large blocks of text. They may not start reading because the length is intimidating. Start a new paragraph whenever a new topic is introduced or if a new aspect of the topic is addressed.

5. Put your keywords at the beginning or end of the sentence.

Decide which words you want to emphasize and place them strategically. Here’s an example:

“Harry sent me the story in a letter.”

“Harry sent me a letter telling the story.”

“Harry used a letter to tell the story to me.”

In the first sentence, the reader is left hanging with the word “letter.” This emphasizes that the story was not sent via email or delivered directly. Likewise, the second sentence makes sure the reader will remember that the information Harry sent was a story. The third sentence makes it clear that the story was sent to “me,” not anyone else.

6. Use active voice over passive voice.

This one can get a bit tricky. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

Passive voice: The spell was cast by Hermione.

Active voice: Hermione cast the spell.

The sentence in active voice is much easier to read. It’s quicker and keeps the reader from slowing down in the middle of the story. Sometimes the passive voice is more effective in context, but consider whether it is really necessary before using it.

7. Cut anything that isn’t vital.  

It’s easy to get caught up in writing words that we think are necessary. But as you read through your work, consider the importance of every word, sentence, paragraph, and scene. If it does not give vital information or push the action forward, cut it.

8. Avoid using lingo.

Don’t assume people know what you’re talking about. If you use shop talk or jargon specific to a certain career, community, or culture, be sure that you are publishing specifically for that audience. Don’t alienate part of your audience by using terms they are unfamiliar with.

9. Don’t marry any single punctuation mark.

If a writer uses parentheticals in every other sentence, it’s distracting. If your reader starts counting the number of exclamation points you’ve used in the paragraph they’re reading, there is a problem. The best illustration of punctuation I’ve heard is this: “Punctuation is the seasoning, not the dish.”

10. Write to be understood, not to impress.

Don’t try to use fancy words and artistic language just to make people think you’re smart. The purpose of writing is communication, not showing off. Yes, there is a time for flowery descriptions, but don’t overload your work with them.

Yes, writers have permission to break the rules every once in a while. But in order to break the rules effectively, a writer must know the rules. A good writer can make creative decisions as long as the writing is clear. Writing was invented as a form of communication. Without a connection between the message creator and the message receiver, a piece of writing means nothing. Modern readers require more clarity than ever. The best thing writers can do is consider their audiences and how to communicate most effectively with them.

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