better writing

Entertain, don’t be afraid of a bit of filth, but be cautious with your XXXs – the essential guide to getting your message across while avoiding the pitfalls of communication

Source: Don’t press send … The new rules for good writing in the 21st century

Writing is an essential part of my life, the primary reason this website exists, and critical to how we all present ourselves online. While writing has always been a bit of a big deal for me, though, for many of the dudes (using that word in a non-gender-specific manner) I know are what we might call “reluctant” writers. That is, they write because they have a need to do so, not out of any desire or passion for writing. The younger the dude, in fact, the more likely they are to take shortcuts, use emojis, and pay absolutely no attention to the grammatical rules we all supposedly learned in primary school.

As a society, we’ve been writing online now for over 20 years. Yes, I realize that’s longer than some of you have been alive but for everyone, this whole online communication thing still hasn’t taken hold the way English majors would like. Shortcuts that were developed back when we were paying for every second we spent connected to a modem have made their way into the popular vernacular without everyone being educated as to what those shortcuts mean or when they should be used. Emojis, which take written communication all the way back to the days of the Egyptian Cuneiform, are so popular that a lousy animated movie was made about them [When my seven-year-old thinks it’s stupid, there’s a problem with the movie.]. We are constantly looking for ways to make our online communication shorter and in doing so we’re sacrificing comprehension. Too many people don’t have a clue what we’re talking about.

All across the Internet one can find a gazillion or so articles about better writing tips. They typically have titles that start with a number, such as, “5 tips for …” and “8 ways to improve …” Blah, blah, blah. Most of them are repeating what the author read somewhere else, far too short to actually help, and fail to actually address the problems we have with writing in the first place. I know this because I click on every such link that comes tumbling across my Twitter feed. I want to know what other writers are saying about writing. So, I read their article, then typically curse the waste of time and close the tab.

Every day, I read through my various newsfeeds and come across an argument containing the phrase, “That’s not what I meant.” That phrase sums up what is wrong with our writing. We’re saying things, some of us are saying a lot of things, but not everyone understands what we’re trying to communicate. We might have a thousand people reading but it’s irrelevant if there’s no comprehension of what we are trying to say.

Why does comprehension matter? Dude, the whole plot of The Big Lebowski hinges on a lack of comprehension. They got the wrong Lebowski, man. They beat him up and pissed on his rug because of a miscommunication and you, presumably, know what happened from there.

Back in 1988, the English band Mike + The Mechanics recorded a song by Mike Rutherford and B. A. Robertson that contains the following lyrics:

You say you just don’t see it
He says it’s perfect sense
You just can’t get agreement in this present tense
We all talk a different language, talking in defense

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

When the song was written about the lack of communication between parent and child (specifically father and son), the Internet as we know it didn’t exist. I find it a bit eery, though, that one can take those lyrics and apply them to almost any online argument today and they fit. If you’re not familiar with the song, take a quick listen (five and a half minutes):

If we’re going to go through what remains of this life abiding in peace, if we’re going to take a “fuck it” attitude and let external matters just blow over us, we have to get better at saying things online. We have to find ways to minimize the misunderstandings, eliminate the chances for someone to misinterpret what we’re trying to say and write in a way that increases reader comprehension. Let’s talk about how we might do those things.

“This isn’t Vietnam. There are rules!”

Let’s be real, painfully honest here: most of us were not paying a lick of attention when our teachers were trying to instill upon us the wisdom found in diagraming sentences and the proper order of how words flow together. Those of us who were already adults when 1995 rolled around didn’t think we would ever actually need those written communication skills, or that they would matter at all. We were going to do great things that didn’t involve sitting behind a desk, which is where one gets stuck if they have to write a lot.

Yeah, we totally blew that one. Now, not only are we writing things more often than we anticipated, we’re doing so while on the go, from our phones, even illegally while we’re driving (which is a stupid thing to do; stop it). Since we don’t remember the rules, we end up saying things like this:

“Great dat today. Back home chilling out. My son is so funny. Bedtime”

“HARD WORK&TIMING IS EVERYTHING,TRUST IN GOD NOT IN MAN,I WILL MAKE THE HATERS BELIEVE,ITS TIME 2 INTRODUCE DIS GENERATION 2 DA ICE CREAM MAN”

” Like the turkey with extra mayo they’re gooder than mug.”

“I make smoothies son. Das jus what I do. This is a mix of strawberry and banana. A lil concoction I call Stranana.”

“every1 congratulate puff 4 bringn music bacc 2 tv !!”

We’re keeping those quotes anonymous to protect the guilty, but every one of them is from someone who is a public person and should know better. This is the point at which sane people blink twice and ask, “What the fuck is that shit?” Even if one had context for those quotes we still would raise our eyebrows because they are an outrageous example of bad writing.

Does any of this actually matter? Can we not just say, “fuck it” and let it go?

Perhaps. The follow-up questions would need to be, “Do you ever leave your house?” and  “Do you need your reputation intact?” If you answer “no” to either of both those questions then perhaps you are one of the few who can let their online word usage slide. For everyone else, though, how we say things is as important as what we’re trying to say. People fail to understand what we’re trying to communicate when the words are put together wrong.

Recently, during an off-the-record moment, while interviewing someone for PATTERN magazine, a person of some prestige and importance told me he absolutely judges people he hasn’t met based on the grammar they use on social media. He even went so far as to question how much worse people’s writing would be if there wasn’t spellcheck of some form built into almost everything. This comes from a person who makes significant hiring decisions—the kind that can dramatically improve the quality of one’s life. He’s reluctant to hire people who not only cannot write well but don’t seem to mind that they appear ignorant online.

How does one combat this problem? Short of going back to school or keeping an English major on retainer, I encourage using some form of online service to help guard against not only spelling errors but basic grammar and punctuation mistakes as well. My tool of choice is the Grammarly plugin for the Chrome browser (this is not a paid endorsement). I’ve used the free version of this plugin for at least a couple of years now and find it absolutely invaluable.  I tend to type rather fast and do not always look at the monitor while I’m typing. Mistakes happen frequently. Grammarly not only points out spelling errors the moment they happen, it picks up on basic mistakes such as when I have two spaces between words instead of one or if I’ve used the wrong version of there, they’re, or their as well as punctuation usage.  In fact, Grammarly can be a bit militant at times regarding comma usage.

While Grammarly doesn’t catch every error, it prevents most of them from reaching your delicate eyes. Once the plugin is installed, it works with just about any text field in any social media application as well as WordPress (unfortunately, it doesn’t work on Google Docs). They have a premium version that gets hardcore about correcting tense and voice and subject/verb agreement. I’ve not splurged for that extra service because I worry that taking all of Grammarly’s suggestions could leave to a very academic-sounding set of articles. Still, it’s great at what it does and has gotten better over the time I’ve used it. I strongly recommend adding the plugin to your browser even if you’re not at all serious about writing. You have one less thing to worry about once it’s in place.

Be clear about what you want to say

Twitter is the only place on social media where one has a 146 character limit forcing us to be efficient with our words. Almost everywhere else (at least, among the apps I’ve encountered so far) lets us use as many words as we want. Yes, there are times we want to be brief, especially when communicating with our phones. Still, one should never sacrifice clarity for the sake of brevity.

Here is where a number of online misunderstandings have their inception. We want to write in the same manner as we talk and more often than not that approach doesn’t work well for us. Those minor inflections in tone, those facial expressions we always make, the hand gestures we use with certain words in our vocabulary, none of that translates over into written communication. We want to think that people who know us will catch our “drift” or our meaning, but frequently even our best friends are not sure when we’re being sarcastic or kidding when we make a statement.

For example, let’s pretend I’ve written something like, “The president made a really good host for a reality game show.” Now, how are you going to interpret that statement? Whether one knows me or not factors a little bit, but I’ve given the reader very little to work with. So, one might assume any of the following possible conclusions:

  • I’m a fan of The Apprentice US version.
  • I’m not a fan of The Apprentice US version.
  • Being a good game show host qualifies one to be president of the United States
  • The president should have stuck to being a game show host and not run for president.
  • The president is using The Hunger Games as a blueprint and we’re all fucking doomed.

There’s nothing in how I originally wrote the statement that would let you know the last interpretation is the correct one. Neither sarcasm nor subtly play well in digital communication. Even in face-to-face communication, those aspects can be difficult to convey. When writing, they don’t exist at all unless one takes the time to fully explain what they mean.

We can’t take anything for granted or assume that our readers are so incredibly plugged into our communication patterns that they’re going to automatically understand everything we type. How many times have people use LOL, for example, thinking it means “lots of love” when its actual definition is “laugh out loud?” That has been a common point of misunderstanding and subsequent embarrassment. Any acronym one uses needs to be spelled out the first time. That’s the only way we’re going to know if ADA stands for the American Diabetes Association, the American Dental Association, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or a small town in Oklahoma.

A final example: You’ll notice that when I use the term “dude” for the first time in an article that I typically include a parenthetical statement explaining that the usage of that word is not gender-specific. Is that parenthetical statement really necessary? After all, many of our core audience are fans of The Big Lebowski and understand the usage of the word. I also mention on our home page that my use of the word throughout the sight is genderless and why. With both those elements in place, why would I need to bother repeating myself in every article?

Absolutely! Most of our readers do not approach an article through the home page. In fact, many never see the home page. Most of our readers click on a link on social media and go directly to the article. I have no assurance that they have any context for my usage of the word “dude” in any form. Therefore, it is up to me to explain exactly what I mean so as to avoid any confusion.

Are we clear enough on this point? If not, please leave any questions in the comment section below. Yes, we have a comment section. Not everyone knew that.

Chill a minute before pushing that “post” button

Here, the fundamental question we have to ask is this: Are you sure you said what you think you said? Many people have gotten into the habit of firing off quick one- or two-word replies and not checking to make sure they’ve said what they intended to say. The Internet is full of examples of how this careless approach to communication can go terribly wrong, especially now that we have autocorrect on most of our smartphones. If we think our phones are sending the exact words we typed, or swiped, we’re often surprised when our friends receive a very different message. This has happened so many thousands of times that there is a website devoted to autocorrect fails.  I pulled a few favorites as examples.

Have I made my point by now? No matter what software we have loaded to help prevent mistakes, they still slip through with frightening ease. We may think we know what we wrote but unless we take a moment to chill and then double-check we’re likely to be surprised when someone gets an entirely different message from what we thought we were sending.

This rule applies double if we’re writing anything about which we are passionate. If we are angry, the rule applies triple. The more emotion we have invested in what we are writing, the more likely we are to make errors while typing. Even if we don’t make any grammatical errors, the words we choose may not be the ones that best communicate what we need someone to see. We frequently create problems we didn’t want or need, or make a bad situation worse because we hit that “post” or “send” button too soon.

Trust me when I say that I know how challenging it can be to apply this rule. By the time I finish this article, I will have spent several hours here in my chair drinking coffee and trying to not fall asleep. When I finish the actual writing part, there are a number of behind-the-scenes factors that I have to check or fill out. I’m always anxious for you to read whatever I’ve written so I want to hit that “publish” button as soon as I can.  Years of experience have taught me the value of waiting, having a cup of coffee, and then going back and proof-reading the whole thing before letting it go public. Do I actually do that, though? Nope. Not even most of the time. As a result, it’s not uncommon for me to get a private message from nice people who look out for me, saying something like, “I don’t think you really meant to say “effect” did you?” or, “You know you totally misspelled Mississippi …”

Sigh. Take the time. Go back and proofread. Let your temper cool a bit. Think through what you really wanted to say and make sure you said it. Yes, it’s an effort but it beats having someone get mad at you because they think you’ve been masturbating all afternoon rather than meditating.

Concluding thoughts

No one ever thought we would do as much writing as our society demands. We certainly never thought it would be something that would keep us up until the wee hours of the morning, “chatting” away with that person we’ve never met but their profile picture looks totally hot. We only have to look as far as the Twitter account of our frequently ridiculous president to see just how chaotic things can become when we’re not careful about how we communicate. If anyone ever needed to exercise that third rule above, the president does. He may also need an advisor with access to a delete button.

As much as we want to keep a chill attitude toward all aspects of life and let matters take their natural course, we must realize that how we communicate, especially the things we write, whether in an email or a comment on social media, can upset our ability to abide peacefully. One word misinterpreted can send folks looking for the wrong Lebowski and when that happens all hell can break loose. No one is chill when hell breaks loose, not even the devil himself (assuming the devil has any chill).

Follow the rules, be as clear as possible, and then chill before hitting that button. Do that and abiding gets a lot easier, dude. We like it when life gets easier.

In fact, if you’ve got this, I’m just going to lie down here on my rug and take a nap, man.

Abide in Peace,
The Old Man

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to pass the hat.

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