This is the third part of our series on how to write a tech blog that reads well. If you wish to read previous entries or find out what will come up next, this is a table of contents that will be updated with links as the series progresses.
Article #1 – Fundamentals & Essential Practices
Article #2 – Structuring Your Blog & Presentation
Article #3 – Style
Article #4 – Common Pitfalls
Article #5 – Opening Your Blog
Article #6 – Closing Your Blog And Explaining Difficult Concepts
1. Register – What Is It?
Tech articles will be either subjective or objective in their register. This is not a dichotomy, it is a spectrum, and articles may fall on a point close(r) to the center or to the extremes.
A subjective register implies writing in the first person, using colloquialisms and a casual tone, foregrounding how one feels about something, and often using humor. It is especially suited for blogs about, for example, someone’s personal experience when learning to code, or when discussing one’s career. It is the preferable register for narrative articles, i.e. those which are intended to be read from start to finish.
An objective register uses the second or third person but generally avoids the use of pronouns where possible (‘I think that…’ gets dropped in favor of ‘It could be argued that…’). The tone is academic, and the language technical. The author will usually not mention themselves in the text unless a disclaimer of some kind is necessary. This register is best suited for guides, how-tos, and walk-throughs of all nature. It’s the one you should adopt for consultation articles, which are intended to be selectively searched and repeatedly referred to.
Let us look at two short paragraphs both about the same topic – writing your CV – written in a highly subjective and then in a highly objective register.
Subjective register: The first time I tried stuffing everything I could do into my CV, I ended up writing an extra volume of The Lord of the Rings. I needed to chop the damn thing down to essentials, but how does one even do that for a role in Software Architecture? And then something clicked – I had to spread the information out differently.
Objective register: Clarity and brevity are key to writing a successful CV. One may object that roles of a more technical nature are difficult to write of concisely, but bear in mind that any skills developed in such roles can be highlighted in other sections of the CV as well.
It’s a good idea to put some conscious thought into what sort of blogs you want to write and for what readership, and then purposefully choose a register that matches that.
2. Register – How To Do It Right
The key when it comes to register is consistency. You don’t want to use different registers within the same article, and ideally you shouldn’t be doing it across different articles either (assuming they are all part of the same blog).
There is a crucial distinction to be made here: mixing is bad, compromise is good.
What this means is that it’s perfectly possible to find a register that falls somewhere between the two examples I provided above, one which is neither too casual nor too formal. The result may look something like this:
A successful CV, at least in my experience, is one that is above all else clear and concise. You may feel that the more technical roles you worked in are difficult to summarize, and you’d certainly have a point. But there are other ways of conveying that information within the same document.
This is a compromise, and it works perfectly well – recall that register is not a dichotomy but a spectrum.
What you absolutely want to avoid is a paragraph with mixed registers, which may look like this:
When I first started writing my CV, I felt like a lost seal puppy in an icy wasteland. To spare you the same feels, the object of this article will be an enumeration of the writing avenues conducive to an optimal CV.
You can choose any register you like for your articles – but once you’ve got it, you have to stick with it. If you notice yourself deviating from your register, amend that during the revision process.
3. Finding Your Voice
Finding your voice may sound like a concern for poets and novelists. In reality, it is at the heart of all good writing, and if you want your blog to read well, this is definitely something you should work on.
To write ‘in your voice’ means to write in a way that feels spontaneous, natural, and to the extent that this is at all possible for writing, effortless. It is very much like talking. A conversation with a close friend doesn’t feel burdensome, because you are speaking in your voice. A significant part of being a good writer is the ability to slip into this voice when putting pen to paper / fingers to keyboard.
Ironically, the best way to find your voice is to stop trying to write a good blog. Assuming you have set down the key points of your article during the planning phase, you will already have some structure and direction, so you will not be writing totally at random.
Within that structure, however, don’t write the way that you think a ‘good blog’ should be written. Instead, for each key point you need to elaborate on, try writing as though you were jotting down a reminder for yourself a year from now, or as though you were explaining this to a friend on an online forum. If necessary, close your eyes and imagine yourself in conversation with a friend, and write down what you would tell them to explain the key point in question, sentence by sentence. If this results in some clunky phrases or some obscure passages, that’s fine – you can iron them out during the revision process.
Your entire first draft should be written in this manner. The formalism of writing will become second nature with practice, but at first it should be of little or no concern.
The reason this approach is important is that regardless of whether the result looks good or not, it is going to be consistent. You are not going to find yourself randomly changing your manner of writing from one paragraph to another, any more than you would do that for your manner of speaking.
The resulting consistent voice will become the bedrock for you to build your style around. If you’re wondering, for example, how to choose the right register for your blog, the answer is that it should adapt itself to your voice – and not the other way round.
Finding and working with your voice is imperative for any writer. It will allow you to write much more quickly, because it will feel much easier than any other way, and it will give your writing a distinctive style that readers will learn to recognize.
Your voice will become more flexible over time, giving your style a broader range. But before anything else you have to find it, and you’ll know you’ve done that simply when you feel truly comfortable writing.
- Can I use difficult, obscure words in a tech blog?
The consensus when it comes to vocabulary is that the best thing you can do is to keep it simple, and avoid obscure or long words if at all possible.
This is great advice… for beginners. If your level of English is not very high, then that’s absolutely what you should do.
Once you reach a certain level of ability, however, words that would generally be considered recondite can actually become precise, and even elegant. For instance, the sentence ‘he had the courage and the arrogance to call himself the team’s only good developer’ becomes simpler and more precise by saying ‘he had the audacity to call himself the team’s only good developer’.
Does that sound too easy? Fine, then up the difficulty level a bit. Try changing ‘My career in tech has been unpredictable, chaotic, and not very easy to make sense of’ to the far more concise ‘My career in tech has been vagarious’.
The key is not to avoid difficult vocabulary, but to not exaggerate in its use. Expecting your readers to look up a word once or twice while reading your article is usually not unreasonable (in fact this is precisely how reading expands people’s vocabulary). Anything more than that is too much, and will do more to detract from than to enrich the reading experience.
The only type of words you should definitely avoid are those which are not (just) difficult, but archaic. For example, the reason you can’t use ‘erelong’ instead of ‘soon’ is not that the word is difficult, but the fact that in common use it has gone extinct, and as such it makes your language less rather than more precise, clumsier rather than more elegant. If you are uncertain, look the word up in the dictionary – the entry will usually specify if it has become obsolete.
All in all, a broader vocabulary increases the flexibility and the range of your style, and is an excellent weapon to add to your writing arsenal (in the field of tech writing, a fairly rare one too). You will occasionally misuse a word and confuse, say, ‘meritorious’ with ‘meretricious’, but hey, that’s how you learn!
- Can I use slang, swear words and emojis in a tech blog?
Yes, yes, and… maybe. If this is your natural writing voice, then that is how you should write, as long as you make sure that the register of your blog is consistent throughout.
A couple of caveats though. Firstly, swearing in your articles risks narrowing your readership. It’s often surprisingly easy to excise obscenity from a sentence without compromising your voice for that, and there are plenty of words that can convey the same meaning and effect as expletives without putting off certain readers in the same way. Just something you might want to consider.
Secondly, slang does not mean ‘bad English’. If you want to write ‘gonna’ instead of ‘going to’, that’s fine. If you write ‘should of’ instead of ‘should have’, that’s not slang, it’s just wrong, wrong, wrong. Never use slang, colloquialisms, casual speech or whatever to justify errors in grammar or spelling. Getting the latter things right is at the very heart of good writing and there is no room for compromise on that.
As for emojis, they still haven’t entered common usage outside of chats and social media, and generally I would recommend avoiding them if possible. They are certainly incompatible with anything but the most casual, informal register, and more importantly, getting used to writing with emojis will slowly make it harder to write without them.
That said, times are changing rapidly, and many readers in tech nowadays may not be bothered by emojis. If you really want to use them, then don’t let me stop you!