This is the fourth 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
Leaving aside the fundamentals, which I have already covered, there are a number of common mistakes that are often made by writers even of a relatively high level. I have identified 3 of them, and they are recurring enough that they deserve their own article.
1. Weasel Words
Weasel words are those words which mean little or nothing, but which we employ because we feel they make a sentence easier or more natural to read. Words such as ‘Just’, ‘Like’, ‘So’, ‘Now’, ‘Quite’, ‘Then’.
Every writer has weasel words of their own, sometimes a lot more specific and atypical than those above. This is inevitable, because we inherit them from speech, where their purpose is to extend our sentences and give us more time to think. Unfortunately, they are utterly counterproductive in writing.
There is no surefire method to counter weasel words except to be aware of their existence, keep an eye open, and get rid of them when they appear. The sentence ‘Let’s just sit down and think about it’ can be simplified to ‘Let’s sit down and think about it’ with no loss.
Granted, the sentence above also doesn’t gain very much except a little brevity, but the overall benefit of removing weasel words is incremental. Readers are much better at noticing your writing quirks than you’ll ever be, and if a certain unnecessary word appears 4 times in the same article, they will perceive it as a stylistic limit. The more weasel words you remove, the more you foreclose this perception.
And if you think that you don’t use any weasel words yourself – then get to work! That almost certainly means you do.
Certain very talented writers can fill their articles with tangents and still make them compelling to read, but in the vast, vast majority of cases, stepping away from the central topic/argument of the blog has the effect of instantly losing the reader’s interest.
I’m not just talking about including personal anecdotes in a technical article. I mean literally any sentence that does not directly contribute to the central argument of the article, regardless of how appropriate it may be in terms of register or tone. If you come across such a sentence when redrafting your article, excise it mercilessly. If you find one and you’re not sure if it is or isn’t important, excise it too – if you’re not sure, it almost certainly means it wasn’t important.
The fact that you love this or that particular passage makes no difference – every writer falls in love with what they write, but the fact that you’re particularly fond of a sentence doesn’t mean that the sentence should be there, nor that it serves the article.
How do you avoid tangents? The answer is simply to do the planning phase properly. As long as you’ve thought out and organized the narrative of your article beforehand, and you just expand on your key points as you originally set them down, you’ll find that your language will stay on point too.
3. Meandering Sentences
Among the most common writing mistakes, even among otherwise excellent writers, is that of overlong sentences. The best way to demonstrate what I mean is by example, so let’s take a look at this passage:
Learning how to code is really not very different from learning how to play music, as both are creative disciplines which demand commitment and practice, and in both cases learners will be faced with an immensely vast field in which they’ll have to choose a specific starting point, from picking an instrument, to a genre, to a community, in accordance with what they are trying to do and be.
In terms of grammar, there’s nothing wrong with this paragraph. But it’s an eyesore for the simple reason that it’s way too long. A period in a sentence allows a reader to absorb a concept or a statement before moving on to the next one, but when a sentence does not stop, the reader will try and ‘hold’ everything in mind until they reach the end. This ‘holding’ costs mental fatigue, and therefore reading pleasure.
Let’s try breaking down the above sentence, using a variety of punctuation options:
Learning how to code is really not very different from learning how to play music. Both are creative disciplines which demand commitment and practice; in both cases, learners will be faced with an immensely vast field, and will have to choose a specific starting point within it – pick an instrument, pick a genre, pick a community, in accordance with what you are trying to do and be.
This is a lot easier on the reader, and we also see how periods, semicolons and dashes can all be used to break up the sentence to slightly different effects.
This is not an unbreakable rule, but you should generally keep most of your sentences at a length of about 1 to 2 lines on a standard Word document at font-size 12. That’s about 15 to 35 words per sentence. Going below that is fine, naturally, but going above that threshhold means you should probably – not certainly, but probably – add a period somewhere and split the sentence.
Use commas any time that you have a short ‘intro’ for your sentence (‘Apparently,…’ ‘Presently,…’ ‘In truth,…’ ‘To be honest,…’), and any time that you add a subordinate clause. Avoid using the same conjunction (‘and’, ‘or’) twice in a sentence – if you do that, split the sentence at one of the two conjunctions.
Finally, read your sentences out loud to yourself. If you have trouble reaching the end without catching your breath, it’s almost certainly too long.
And that’s it for now! Join us next week to read up on how to open your blog.