Rules number four and five in my Writing for the web in 300 words say:
Learn grammar. Forget what teachers said about long words making you look smart. It isn’t true. Instead use simple words, grammar and sentences. It is harder to go wrong.
Finding simple words isn’t always easy, especially when you are in a hurry.
A thesaurus helps. I sometimes use Microsoft Word’s thesaurus when I’m stuck. There are online thesauri and, whisper this because I’m now a paperless journalist, there are two on my bookshelf at home.
And then there is Ironic Sans’ Thsrs.
Thsrs is a short word thesaurus designed to help Twitter users find shorter words to fit inside the 140 character limit. Thsrs is a great tool for digging out a simpler, easier-to-read alternative, option, choice.
- Start straight away. Don’t waste time warming up.
- Reduce barriers between your ideas and your audience.
- Write clearly. Use readily understandable language. Be unambiguous.
- Learn grammar. Forget what teachers said about long words making you look smart. It isn’t true.
- Instead use simple words, grammar and sentences. It is harder to go wrong.
- Go easy on adjectives and adverbs.
- Try to imagine your reader – an ordinary bloke or woman. Write for that person.
- Use ‘be’ verbs sparingly to make your writing more interesting. Use them even less in headlines.
- “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” Most people think it was Mark Twain; it was Blaise Pascal, a French Mathematician.
- Keep sentences short; up to 20 words. A 15 word sentence limit is better.
- Keep paragraphs short; usually one to four sentences. Only use more if you need to.
- Use plenty of full stops and line breaks. Use lists and bullet points. Be generous with crossheads (secondary headings).
- Highlight keywords with bold or italics.
- Writing is story telling.
- Summarise your story in the headline.
- If you write an introduction use it to tell readers what your story is about. Expand on your ideas in the following paragraphs.
- Write so the story can be cut at any point yet readers have the maximum information.
- Aim for short and crisp. Online readers tire after 200 words and start dropping out at around 300. Keep most stories below this length although you can write some longer pieces.
- You can find longer explanations of all these points elsewhere on this site.
My presentation from WordCampNZ in 300 words.
Winston Churchill said: “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”
He was right.
Short words are best because they don’t get in the reader’s way. They are familiar.
This makes them easy to understand and easy to spell.
They are also easier to pronounce
Most short words in modern English come from Anglo-Saxon, not Latin, roots.
They mainly describe real-world objects and actions, not abstract concepts.
Short words get straight to the point.
Worrying about the differences between American and other versions of English feels old-fashioned in an era of global connections.
Yet you should be aware of them.
If you write for English-speakers outside of North America, your words and your meaning will be easier to read, better understood and unambiguous if you follow local use.
If you come from a British English tradition — that includes Australia and New Zealand among other places — you’ll not only feel more at home writing in your own voice, your writing will be more natural as a result.
And that matters online, where a writer’s voice takes on far more importance. Most Americans won’t worry. A few pedants might niggle, others will find it charming.
At the same time, you’ll find words flow more fluently when you are comfortable with your language.
Another reason not to force yourself into using American English is you may occasionally get it wrong. At worse, Americans will spot you as a phony. More likely, you will be misunderstood.
Remember your goal as a writer is to articulate ideas as clearly and efficiently as possible. Your natural voice is the best tool for the job.