Michael J. Swart

December 12, 2014

Obvious and Not-So-Obvious Writing Tips

Filed under: SQLServerPedia Syndication — Michael J. Swart @ 10:54 am

Takeaway: I leave SQL Server behind this week and I give two tips for technical bloggers,

  1. An obvious tip: Practice a lot
  2. A not-so-obvious tip: Help your readers skip reading your article

First the obvious tip.

Practice in Volume

As far as tips go, practice makes perfect is kind of obvious, and ultimately a little disappointing. Just like “Eat right and exercise”, the phrase “Go practice more” is one of those things that is easier said than done.

I first heard about a Composition Derby when I read The Underachieving School by John Holt. John Holt was an English teacher and author and he describes the Composition Derby as a device he used to help kids practice writing. The kids in his English class get divided into teams and they are asked to write about anything they want (spelling and grammar doesn’t count). At the end of the competition, the team who has written the most words wins. That’s the only criteria, number of words. When kids don’t worry about making mistakes they feel free to practice more. And that frees them to improve faster.

But I think the volume of practice is the key here. I believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule. The rule claims that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. I like the idea of the 10,000 hour rule, but the one thing I don’t like is that it gives a definite number. Eight hours of writing practice can yield results and 10,000 hours implies a finish line. For example, compare these two illustrations I drew. They both use the same reference photo but they’re spaced apart by about 1,000 hours of practice.
An upset looking E. F. CoddTed Codd

It’s easy to compare illustrations when presented side by side. It’s not as easy to compare writing but feel confident that with practice, you’ll improve and your readers will notice.

Make Your Article Skippable

The second tip is a little counter-intuitive. Make it easy for your readers to skim your article or even skip reading your article all together.

You have something important to write, and I get that. But when thinking about the reader-writer relationship, your article is all about your readers. Their need to read actually outweighs your need to write and ultimately your readers will decide what’s important. I’m notoriously bad at predicting whether a post of mine will be well received or not. And so I make my blog posts skippable. The readers who find what I write important will stick around.

Here are some methods I use that help readers stop reading. Consider using these methods in your own writing

  • Topic sentence (which I frame as a takeaway). Condense your whole blog into a tweet-sized sentence. Give everything away as quickly and clearly as you can. Leave suspense-building for mystery writers. For example, if you only read SQL Server articles, you probably haven’t made it this far. You probably didn’t make it past the first sentence.
  • Organize your article into sections with headings that can stand alone as an outline. It improves skimmability.
  • In general, put a high value on your reader’s time. Make every word count in helping you say the one thing you want to say and don’t say anything else.

Now here’s the crazy part, when you make your article skippable it actually has the opposite effect. These methods I use actually help readers stick around. Readers have a better mental roadmap of the content and they stay (see, you’ve stuck around this far!).


  1. There are cases where I don’t follow my own advice. And I just know that someone’s going to call me on it. The best defense I have is that perhaps I’m following another rule (written by George Orwell in Politics and the English Language). That rule is:

    Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    Comment by Michael J. Swart — December 12, 2014 @ 11:11 am

  2. Once again, I’ve discovered a wonderful quote (again by Mr. John Holt) which makes me question my choice of the word “practice” in this article. To quote Mr. Holt:

    “I enjoy playing the cello and I hope to one day play well. Most people would say I was ‘learning to play the cello.’ But this implies that there are two processes: (1) learning to play the cello (2) playing it, and that after doing the first for a while I will stop and begin doing the second. This is of course nonsense. There are not two processes, but one.”

    Or maybe to paraphrase Yoda, “Do or do not, there is no practice”

    Comment by Michael J. Swart — December 12, 2014 @ 4:11 pm

  3. When I read your opening, I thought you meant you were leaving SQL Server behind *for good* and becoming an English teacher or something!

    Comment by Aaron Cooper — December 12, 2014 @ 5:40 pm

  4. Haha. No, not for a long long time I think.

    Comment by Michael J. Swart — December 12, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

  5. Really good points Michael! Making an article skippable is certainly counter-intuitive but points to the need to respect one’s readers. Yet another example of “it’s not all about me (the writer)”.

    Comment by Justin Randall — December 17, 2014 @ 7:55 am

  6. Thanks Justin, I appreciate the feedback. Putting yourself in the readers shoes is always a good idea, but it’s actually a surprisingly difficult skill.

    Comment by Michael J. Swart — December 17, 2014 @ 9:06 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress