Writing Well For a Modern Audience: Rule #1 – Use White Space

Rules are meant to be broken.

I’ve heard that somewhere before, can’t remember where.

It’s a lie.

A more accurate statement would be, “Rules are guides and they can be broken but you must be armed with a “why”. A writer should only break rules when he knows obeying the rule is counterproductive.

Like I mentioned in the previous article, rules are not mandatory. They are like safe havens you run to when in doubt. You can ignore them but only when you know what you’re doing.

If you’re just starting out however, you need to appreciate rules.

Writing is a lot like juggling. It involves you throwing up so many words and ideas onto the page, trying to deliver some measure of coherence in your story. As you juggle, rules are your training wheels. They help you build your confidence and ensure you don’t get egg yolk on your face as you do your juggling act.

There’s a universe of incredibly useful rules out there. Today, we’ll be discussing the use of white space.

White Space

Let’s do a quick test. Which do you find easier to read?

This? :


Or this:


There’s a reason that first article has gotten 81,000+ claps on Medium (mindblowing, by the way!). The text is way easier to read than the second one which is clunky and claustrophobic.

The difference is the use of white space.

What is white space?

Whitespace is the portion of a page left unmarked or blank. It is the space between your words, sentences and paragraphs.

Quick note: even though it’s called white space, it doesn’t mean the actual space must be “white”. The blank space may be filled with any color as long as it is free of any text or words.

White space is all about formatting.

“Alternatively referred to as spacing, white space helps separate paragraphs of text, graphics, and other portions of a document, and helps a document look less crowded.”

White space is one of the tricks in a good writer’s repertoire. It’s way up there in the “tricks that will improve your writing exponentially” category.

White space gives your writing a shot in the arm, albeit in a covert way. Readers rarely notice your use of it unless you use it poorly.

So why do many people refuse to use it?

I don’t know but I have a hunch. I’ll use myself as an example.

I wrote my first essay (or composition exercise if you attended a missionary school like mine) in Primary 2. The topic was “What I Like About Myself”.

Just before giving us classwork, my class teacher scribbled four “rules” on the board:

Rule 1: Essays have 3 parts. Introduction, Body and Conclusion.

Rule 2: The introduction and the conclusion are one paragraph each.

Rule 3: The body has between 3 to 5 paragraphs.

Rule 4: Limit each paragraph to carry just one point each. Only one.

She spent about 30 minutes explaining each rule and its implications.

As my first introduction to prose writing, this would become the foundation of my career, who knew?

That was over 20 years ago.

It’s been several years of classes, courses and workshops, and more rules have been added. However, Rule 4 stuck with me. It’s safe to assume most literate people have this rule stuck in their heads as well.

To be clear, it’s a good rule, when taken in context.

Limiting each idea to a single paragraph helps you to reel in your thoughts and gives your writing some structure and clarity. In fact, it’s a great rule for kids learning to write prose. It’s also helpful if you’re writing for a print publication because space is a premium on that medium.

Weirdly, one of the things that put me off reading newspapers when I was younger was the cluster of words on each page. They looked so intimidating!

However, as a professional writer, Rule 4 has officially run its course.

We’re in the center of a digital revolution that means most of the prose being generated today will not be consumed on a sheet of paper but through a screen of some kind.

This means that, space is no longer at a premium – you can have as much white space as you want when you write.  

Look at all that beautiful white space!

However, using white space takes practice. It’s not as easy as saying, limit every paragraph to 4/5 lines of text (even though that’s a good start).

Using White Space

As a writer, think of yourself as a director. You’re in charge of what people experience when consuming your work. You have the control, whether you know it or not.

The trick to using white space is putting yourself in the reader’s shoes.

It’s easy to get lost in the writing itself as you try to capture your thoughts and give them life. But it’s also important to view your writing from the readers’ perspective.

How I do this?

Imagine yourself giving a presentation., let’s say a TED talk. The hall is packed with people ready to hang onto your every word. You have a 10-15 minutes for your presentation.

How do you deliver it?

You could decide to cram your words and sentences together, rushing through your presentation. That’s a bad idea though. It doesn’t matter how clever or original your ideas are, rushing will exhaust your audience quickly, or worse still, bore them.

On the other hand, I’ve watched a few TED talks and I noticed the best presenters always pace themselves. They pause often, sometimes for dramatic effect, sometimes to ask rhetorical questions, sometimes to let the audience soak in the gravity of what has been said (or about to be said).  

It’s subtle yet incredibly effective. It engages the audience and enhances the presentation.

Think of your articles as a presentation and the reader is your audience. Cramming your words together is like rushing through your presentation. We’ve agreed this is a terrible idea.

Instead, use white space the same way you’d use pauses during your presentation. As you write or edit, whenever you come across a sentence you feel you’ll pause before saying, start it on a new line.

Like this.

See?

It’s easy.

As a personal rule, I keep my paragraphs at a maximum of 3 lines, 4 maximum.

You can give your writing even more “pauses” using bullet points and sub headings.

Using white space is like a sculptor taking a block of text and chiseling at it till the project looks good, smooth, pleasing to see.

Without adequate white space, your writing looks claustrophobic, unfinished. And if it looks horrible, it will be hard to read.

When writing, your ideas are important. But if you want to give your ideas to have legs, to travel far, you have to work on your presentation.

So go on, start experimenting with white space today.

Cover Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
Advertisements

Improve Your Writing With George Orwell’s 6 Rules of Writing Well

I recently saw a video of noob trapeze artists undergoing training. It’s not a particularly impressive sight.

Aside from their rigorous workout regimen which they maintain daily, they practice routines while harnessed with safety lines and swing above a safety net at all times. It’s not fancy but it is a necessary step on the path to wowing crowds with their death defying feats some day.

Writing is sort of the same.

While writing, like most artistic endeavours, can not be regulated, there are rules to this thing. Those rules ensure you don’t commit literary suicide on the pages of a blog or book. They also help you gain a footing since having literally millions of words available to you is a recipe for disaster.

George Orwell’s 6 Rules of Writing

When I was starting out, George Orwell’s 6 Writing rules was my first introduction to the world of writing well. So it is only fitting that I start this tutorial series revisiting them.

George Orwell’s 6 rules were the rails on which I built my style. No passive sentences, no clichés, no jargon, they all helped me quickly settle into a rhythm for what good writing should look and sound like.

I hope they help you too.

Rule 1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print*

*Replace print with wherever you currently get your news

When writing, writers scramble to capture and convey their thoughts with the best words. Unfortunately, we are predisposed to take the easy way out which means, we’ll use the first word or phrase that our mind conjures. Due to years of reading and consuming media, our minds are accustomed with clichés. That’s because they are easy and memorable.

But clichés are your enemy.

Regardless of which language you’re writing in, there are a hundred and one quite a few phrases that have been used to death overused. Avoid these like the plague as much as you can. Truth be told, you can’t totally eliminate them but by drawing your attention to the effect they have on your writing, (it makes it weaker not stronger), this is a very needful first rule. It also encourages you to try harder to avoid them and reduce their frequency.

Seriously, aren’t you tired of seeing things like, bury the hatchet, an ax to grind, viz a viz, out of the blue, a can of worms, armed to the teeth, easy as ABC, beat around the bush and so on?

These phrases are functional but forgettable. Most times, when you encounter such phrases in other people’s writing, your brain sort of hibernates cos it’s familiar and therefore boring. As a writer, using clichés makes you mentally lazy and also weakens your writing.

The next time you’re writing and your mind offers you clichés as the easy way out, turn it down and send it back to think up something more creative.

Rule 2. Never use a long word where a short one will do

A better way to write this is, never use a complex or long word when a short and simpler one will do the same job, sometimes even better.

This is Patrick Obahiagbon, former member of the House of Reps 2007 – 2011 and a legal practitioner.

wp-image-78475410

But you wouldn’t know that if you Googled him. From the search results, you’d think he was a circus act or a comedian. Nobody takes him seriously, even when he’s making a lot of sense. Why? That’s because he speaks using the most advanced and complex words in the English dictionary.

It’s worse when you’re a writer. Using big, long, or complex words will produce the wrong results, turning off your readers and making you sound conceited.  

Academics suffer the most from this. It is as though they are expected to sound complicated when the purpose of academia is to make knowledge accessible and understandable for as many people as possible. Ironically, I’ve also found that the ones who can bridge that gap – who can talk to their fellow academics as well as regular people like us, in clear and easy ways – end up breaking boundaries in their fields and crossing over into the mainstream.

The joy of writing is being able to convey your ideas clearly and skillfully. Using big flashy words impresses nobody. Complex and long words are not necessarily smarter. They are definitely tougher to read and understand. So, if there is a simpler, shorter word, use that instead.

Rule 3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out

I’ve talked quite a bit on self editing in past posts.

If you plan to go the long mile in this writing thing, one thing you must constantly do is, self edit. Or as Stephen King puts it, kill your darlings!

That’s right. Just because you wrote it and you liked it doesn’t mean it must make it into the final draft. Nope, there’s no such rule.

The rule is, if the sentence/paragraph will still make sense without the part under scrutiny, then edit it out. The more words we use to make a point, the less diluted its power is.

Be like Ernest Hemingway who allegedly wrote a short story in 6 simple words, For Sale: baby shoes, never used.

It takes skill to do something like that. Heck, I want to do something like that! That’s something we all should aspire to.

As you age as a writer, your aim should be figuring out ways to use less to tell more.

Rule 4. Never use the passive where you can use the active

Which one sounds better?

The ball was kicked by Adam” vs “Adam kicked the ball

I’m guessing you picked the second one. That’s because it uses the active voice rather than passive.

The active voice is powerful because it grants the subject matter urgency and oomph! This rule is frequently broken by (you guessed right) academics. Seriously, have you tried to read a research journal? It’s like an exercise in longsuffering. I have a theory for why academic writing is usually that way but it’s still a working theory.

It’s not only academics though. A lot of writers do this especially, mostly because we are scared of being assertive.

Anyway, active voice >>> passive voice.

Rule 5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Rule 5 is similar to rule 2.

If you are a non fiction writer like me, this is a tricky rule. But it’s still valid.

Over the course of your career, you’ll realise that the whole purpose of the written form is to aid understanding. When your writing is pleasing to read, it is more memorable and your ideas become sticky, gaining wide readership.

A lot of non fiction writing is usually technical knowledge targeted at other people within an industry. Hence the use of jargon. But research has shown that, just because you have a secondary school education, doesn’t mean you can read at that level. The average reader’s sweet spot is the 9th grade reading level (4th year of grammar school if you are in the UK, SS1 if you are Nigerian).

Yes, you read that correctly. Most of us have our reading ability hovering around the same stage it was when we were still in high school. This is why most of the bestsellers write at this level. 

That’s the sweet spot. If you want your work to gain the maximum audience it can, you have to dumb it down and make it simple enough for a 9th grader, even if you are a professor.

I try to run my articles through the readability website to see if I’m within the sweet spot. Quick note: This article is optimized for a 7th grader!

Rule 6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

I like how George Orwell makes the last rule a disclaimer. It gives back agency and control to the writer, ensuring that he still goes into the writing project with his brain working, rather than just ticking boxes on a checklist.

When you write, everything you do is in service to the reader as well as the integrity of your ideas and thoughts. If obeying any of these rules will end up defeating these two things, damn the rules!

In Conclusion

Since I started writing professionally, I’ve followed these rules religiously. I still do, even though I broke them a few times writing this.

Writing is not easy but it is worth the effort of learning, practicing and getting better at. At the end of it all (another cliché!), what matters is that you put in the effort. I do hope these rules will give you the boost you need to producing better writing.

See you next week.

Header Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

It’s been almost 5 years, Time to Pay it Forward

When I first started the blog, I wanted to achieve 3 things:

Make money 

I won’t lie. When I opened this blog, I had money on my mind. Money from traffic, money from ads, money money money. In fact, I really did believe I would just punch out a few articles and boom! Watch the dollars roll in.

LMAO!

Yeah I know, it makes me laugh as well.

Fortunately, and in spite of my misconceived expectations, the blog still happened to bring me some value, monetary and otherwise.  I’ve gotten writing gigs and referrals based on someone reading something I wrote and deciding they wanted to work with me.

So things still worked out great in the end….

Get better as a writer

Writing for an audience rather than writing purely for myself, I assumed would help me write better. And help also with discipline.

I also needed a place to display my written work, as I wasn’t employed at the time.

Needless to say, this was/is the most realistic and most successful goal on this list.

Help others write better

This was not a priority for me back then, cos I was just getting into the groove of things myself.

It’s been almost four years now. And even though there’s a universe of things out there I still do not know, I feel there’s some value to be had in paying it forward.

I learned how to write exclusively from the internet.

Every tip, every video, every PDF and ePub I have consumed was from the internet and after thousands of hours learning and practising, I’m making a decent living off these skills.

I figured I owe the internet some payback.

Within the past 4 months, I’ve had several people buzz me asking for advice on how to get started with a career in writing. Or asking for tips on improving their writing.

It was becoming cumbersome to dig up articles, resources etc. And the fact that everyone is unique and we retain our individuality, hence it’s hard to find a one-size fits all approach to teaching an elusive skill like writing.

And so, starting from today, I’m going to be doing writing tutorials (if you can call it that).

There will still be the occasional rant, but for the most part, I’ll be focusing my time and mental energy on the art of writing and how to get better at it.

I’m currently compiling a list of topics to begin with so if there’s anything you would be interested in learning, please leave a comment.

Until then…

How I Crushed My Biggest Writing Project to Date


So I began this ghostwriting project for a client early January this year. It was a real growing experience for me. For one, it was the first time I would handle a book of that magnitude, both in terms of subject matter as well as calibre of client.

The client was a part of the previous political regime and the book focused on policy, youth development and the African narrative. It was a big picture book, with a lot of new terms and concepts, a lot of history, a lot of case studies.

I began talks with his team in early January. A week or so after I had taken the job and contracts had been signed, the man dropped a big bomb on me:

He told me he’s been trying to write this book since 2012. And somehow the project always falls apart.

Yeah, that did wonders for my self confidence. 

Anyways, I prayed asking God to make me a solution to this man’s problem. Rather than become another statistic, another failed attempt to write this book, let me be the one to take the project across the finish line.

It wasn’t easy. Sometimes I’d glance at the interview logs I had done, the notes I had taken (enough to fill 2 notepads), and then the blank pages in front of me waiting to be filled.

It often felt like I had bitten off more than I could chew.

After several false starts and four sleepless months, several back and forths with the editors, FINALLY, the book launched on October 2, 2017!

It was a really emotional experience for me seeing the book in my client’s hand.

I felt like a surrogate mom and a midwife at the same time.

I guess ghostwriting is a bit of both.

I’m still reeling from the euphoria! And I’m eager for even bigger challenges .

The last thing I’ll say is, my writing tutors were right – there’s no project that can’t be crushed. It may take time, but Goliaths will fall if you keep lobbing stones at them.

I guess I’m writing this as a reminder to myself, and to all of us who face frequent episodes of self doubt – Keep going.

Trusting the Process

Trust.

I’ve never understood how something so powerful, so pivotal, could be so fragile.

I don’t understand it but I’m thankful.

As a writer, you have to trust your writing process.

There are days I feel like a fraud. I wake up thinking, “Aha, this is the day everyone finds out just how much of a hack you are. The gig is up. You’ll try to write today and nothing but thrash will come out of your pen.”

Every day, I wake up with this thought. The thought isn’t an “in-your-face, yelling and screaming” thought. It’s more like a persistent irritating sound that you’ve relegated to the back of your mind when you’re deep in work.

This thought stays with me all morning till I sit at a desk to write. When it’s time to start punching out words, there’s this sudden moment I feel like running away from the computer, just run away and not come back.

“There’s nothing left to write. You’re done. You’ve finally met a blank page you couldn’t conquer.”

The only thing keeping me at that desk is Trust. I trust my process. (I also usually have Sade Adu playing in the background which helps but we’ll get to that eventually).

Every writer should have a process, especially if like me, you experience strong episodes of self doubt and impostor syndrome.

I remember that scene from Leap Year (pretty forgettable movie but this scene stuck). The guy said, when your house is on fire, what you love most is what you grab before running out.

Battling impostor syndrome is a bit like that. Every morning, as my internal world crumbles or goes up in flames, I stroll out of the house, with trust intact. Trust in my process.

As long as I can get to the table with my process, it will eventually turn out okay. I’ll show up, deliver and walk away.

The gig isn’t over yet, my con is still intact. Live to write another day. Till the next day. Then you get to do it all again.

Trust the process.

Photo Credit: Strategic Monk