What I know about writing
With ten years and counting of communications and storytelling, here are three things I’m sure of about effective writing.
1. Have an opinion
A storyteller who sits on the picket fence, in reality has nothing to say. Writing can and should challenge perspectives or agitate some discussion. This doesn’t mean you go spitting fire on everything and everyone, but you should have well-formed opinions to make an interesting narrative.
If your views are contentious, there should be well-made arguments or at least, very good explanations to back up your standpoints. It’s okay to disagree or have an absurd stance — this is what makes writing humourous, eye-opening, and almost always personable — just don’t hold back on the justifications!
So write confidently. Your audience will be able to pick up any hesitations if you are in any way unsure of yourself. They’ll think you’re grasping at straws, or worse, simply stirring shit up for clickbaiting.
Think of all the writers and the material you enjoy reading; they all have personal views. Some with more strong opinions than others, but there’s always a perspective to explore.
2. Don’t dismiss your reader’s intelligence
I really dislike spelling things out to readers. This is something I often disagree with my editors who’d like me to add more detail — especially if they don’t add any depth to the topic. I’m all for not giving everything away. Why? because if you already know your audience, you should be in tune with what is basic knowledge to them. And nothing kills a story more than inconcise, waffly writing.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a feature profile on journalist Megha Rajagopalan, who was one of the first to expose the Uighur crisis in Xinjiang for Buzzfeed News. I referenced her articles, adding hyperlinks, and thought that was that. However, upon being published, I realised whole excerpts of her news article was added into my story. Ms Rajagopalan’s Xinjiang series made tidal waves in the newsworld, long before I interviewed and wrote her story. It was not new news, and repeating her words seemed redundant — especially when the story is about her own experiences and perspective. So I pushed back, and thankfully, it was shortened for better reading.
In a world of short attention spans, it is always good practice to be concise. If you’re writing stories of a particular interest, assume that your audience already knows to some degree what you’re on about. They are looking for something actually new and interesting. They will access your hyperlink references if they need to. And if they don’t, that mysterious back story will keep them thirsting for more.
3. On writing authentically
Whether you’re writing for an audience or for yourself, it’s important that you carry yourself across as authentically as possible. You might hear this a lot in copywriting for brand marketing in particular, but I think it carries across in nearly all forms of writing. You may not be a great writer — you may not even be a good one — but when you write genuinely, you are effective.
It may mean you write how’d you speak, for one. Now’s not the time to write like you would in news copy. Add inflections; change up your prose; add your own rhythm; and don’t be afraid to use informal, colourful language if this is really what you would say.
Writing this way always draws the reader, specifically to you, the writer. Give them a sense of your personality, and if they like it, you’ll find yourself a loyal following. People have a strong inclination to discover more from people they feel an affinity with — and the best way to get readers feeling this way is to have you writing in your own voice.
And this means writing beyond your own judgement. If you write rather formally, so be it! If you’re not comfortable with expletives, then don’t add any. If you enjoy puns, then go ahead and include it in your writing.
Writing authentically also means building trust. This is of course vital in brand development as I have mentioned earlier. But in storytelling it’s about being transparent, and speaking openly and honestly about challenges. It’s about not making farfetched promises or writing with hyperbole to stretch the expectations of your reader and/or supporters. In doing so, your story, along with your values, become believable.