Takeaway: I leave SQL Server behind this week and I give two tips for technical bloggers,
- An obvious tip: Practice a lot
- 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.
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!).