May 18, 2020
This is Why People Aren’t Reading Your Articles
I’ve been writing for the vast majority of my adult life. It’s the only career I’ve ever had, aside from a few odd-jobs as a cashier and what have you. My passion for the written word dawned during my pre-teen years, when I’d spend my free time handwriting war stories and sketching the characters produced by my juvenile mind into the pages of infinite notebooks.
I carried that passion into adulthood, and I shaped it into a viable career. Now, my day-to-day work consists of reading, editing and publishing anywhere from five to ten articles for my publication, Mind Cafe.
My job gives me the luxury of reading all manner of insightful articles about personal development, psychology and answers to the question of happiness. But it is here, sitting at my laptop each day, that I notice truly talented writers making the same mistakes over and over again.
Of course, each author should maintain their unique voice. They should write freely and per their style, in line with their values and intentions. But, even when doing so, there remain several simple, easily-fixable errors that seem to litter their otherwise exemplary work. It’s these mistakes that may be preventing genuinely talented authors from making their way into top publications, books and positions of employment.
While the three blunders listed below might not seem catastrophic as far as quality is concerned, sharpening up these small things could transform your writing. But who am I tell you what you’re doing wrong? Why should you listen to me?
Well, I’m not a bestselling author. I have no degree in the English Language. My writing hasn’t broken any records, and I certainly haven’t won any awards.
Yet I see far more written work than the average person, and it’s my job to check it for errors and ensure that it meets an exceptional standard. I might not be a writing expert, but multi-national media giant, Medium, has entrusted me as their partner. With their support, I manage a viral publication full-time — a digital magazine with over 1.5 million monthly readers.
Moreover, I’ve been working as a freelance writer for hundreds of different clients across the globe for more than six years. Those clients range from small local businesses to million-dollar companies and agencies. I might not be an ‘expert’, but it appears others believe in my abilities. That must mean something.
Anyway, I digress — but digression isn’t one of these three mistakes, so my card will remain unmarked for now. In an attempt to save the budding writer from avoidable rejection, I’ve put together a list of common errors I come across almost daily. By reading them, you’ll be able to steer clear of them.
1. Delivering a Weak Introduction
When you start scrolling through an article, how long do you usually read it for? Studies show that an average of 55% of people will read an article for less than fifteen seconds. You have fifteen seconds, usually less, to convince your reader to stay put while you impart your pearls of wisdom into the fertile soils of their mind.
Your introduction is your moment. It’s your only chance to draw people in. You could have the most jaw-dropping, ground-breaking, life-changing article the world has seen since Hemingway, but if your introduction is boring, nobody’s going to read your work.
Your opening paragraph is everything. It’ll make or break you. As Gary Provost, author of 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, puts it,
‘Your hook is whatever it takes to lead your readers so deeply into your story or article that they will not turn back unless you stray from the path you have put them on.’
Don’t jump straight into your piece with seven tips about god-knows-what aimed at who-knows-who without first setting the scene. Don’t use your first five lines to layout a complicated philosophy and confuse your reader to hell before you even get their attention.
Get people engaged right off the bat. Introduce a compelling character that piques their interest; shock them with an intense opening that’s bursting with action; speak to them directly by asking questions and addressing them personally — anything but a long, dull stream of consciousness that’s going to lose them before you even really have them.
Deploy the many different weapons you have in your arsenal. Why don’t you lure people in with a rhetorical question? (See what I did there?) Or how about you address your readers directly? Or why don’t you just go all-guns-blazing with a fast-paced intro like the one Jordan Gross used in his article for Mind Cafe:
“There was blood everywhere. But wait, let me backtrack. This piercing voice was screaming so loudly that I could hear her from the second floor. She lives on the fourth. I’m a nurse, so when I hear somebody screeching, “Heeeeelp! Heeeeelp!”
I want to read on, don’t you? Thought so. That’s the reaction you want to illicit in every single person that clicks on your article. You want them to be asking questions that you’ll give the answer to — but only if they continue reading.
Lesson one: Don’t mess up your introduction.
2. Using Boring Sentences
Once you have your reader’s attention, you need to keep it. That’s task number two. At any point in your article, you stand to lose their interest as quickly as you gained it. You don’t want to make that mistake.
But how exactly are we supposed to maintain our readers’ curiosity throughout the entirety of our article? Well, while there are no surefire ways to guarantee that people read your work, there are several tricks you can use to boost your chances. One of the simplest ways to keep things engaging is to vary sentence structure.
In writing, you have a range of different sentence structures at your disposal. There are simple sentences, for example. Short, snappy and to-the-point.
Then there are longer, more complicated sentences — sentences with multiple clauses just like this one. Such structures provide a little more information than simple sentences, enabling you to dive deeper into topics and explore subjects further. But these sentences are harder to follow. We have to break them up with shorter sentences. The ear likes a little variety every now and then.
Your task as a writer is to keep your reader engaged as you tell your story. Monotonous sentences will suck the life out of your literary creations and bleed them dry of any enthusiasm, excitement or rhythm. Just look at the following examples.
This sentence has five words. This one contains five more. Five-word sentences are fine. But too many become boring. Do you see what’s happening? The ear demands some variety.
But now listen. When I vary the sentence length, I create a rhythm. Music. This kind of writing flows naturally, like the verses of a melodic song. These sentences are a little easier on the ear. And then, when you’re sure your reader is listening, you can throw in a sentence that’s bursting with energy and texture and might even be a little bit longer, but they don’t mind — because they’re interested. See?
When you write, you have to mix things up. You have to keep your content interesting, and a simple shift in sentences structure can achieve that. It’ll infuse your pieces with life and character, whether they’re philosophical musings or poetic sonnets.
Lesson two: Variety is the spice of life.
3. Overcomplicating Everything
Whether you write history books, fantasy novels or self-help articles, you’re a storyteller. Granted, not every one of these methods forces you to invent made-up characters or mythical beasts. But in any piece of writing, it’s your job to take readers on a journey through your mind.
The thing is, your mind’s a complicated place, isn’t it? There’s so much noise up there in that skull of yours that you can’t expect to simply offload your cognitive baggage onto paper and hope that people catch your drift. No, as a storyteller, you have to help people to understand what you’re saying. And the best way to do that is to keep things simple.
We’re all proud owners of a mental dictionary containing words that only a few people know. And it’s tempting to use the most intellectually-impressive words you have at your disposal when composing a piece of writing.
Indeed, you may well yearn to flabbergast your audience with a myriad of diverging synonyms, metonyms and hyperbolic expressions of intoxicating exuberance. Perhaps they’ll make you sound intelligent and well-read. But will anybody really know what you’re talking about?
See, when you’re writing, your task isn’t to impress readers. At least, not to the point that your fancy words leave them checking the dictionary every thirty seconds.
It’s up to you as a storyteller to ensure your audience knows what you’re talking about. The ability to express complicated ideas simply is a sign of a skilled author, as much as we might think the opposite to be true.
Take George Orwell, for example. Orwell is often claimed to be one of history’s most celebrated writers, but there’s nothing flashy or ground-breaking about Orwell’s writing on a superficial level. The reader isn’t wowed by his expert lexicon or fanciful structures.
No, what makes Orwell such a fantastic writer is that he keeps things simple. He writes in plain English. In his own words, Orwell listed a handful of rules that all good writers should follow:
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Good writing isn’t complicated writing.
The skilled author is already sure of his abilities. He feels no need to show off to gain respect. He understands that his job is to assist people in understanding his thoughts — and to maintain their interest while doing so.
Lesson three: Keep things simple. Don’t lose your reader in an attempt to sound smart.
There is no correct way to write, really. Nothing is wrong and nothing is right in the world of the written word. But there’s no doubting the fact that certain techniques will improve the readability of your content.
Whenever I’m writing, I repeatedly find myself making the mistakes listed above. I’ve snipped hundreds of superfluous words out of this article and swapped out fancy adjectives for simpler terms. I’ve had to chop down sentences and patch together others. I’m not immune to the errors that catch us all out.
The truth is, you might never reach a point where everything you write is perfectly void of faults. That’s the importance of editing.
I’ve read this single article nearly fifty times, and each time I find something I’d like to change. Let this be evidence that, if there’s one thing more important than any other practice in writing, it’s re-reading your work.
When you do, remember the mistakes listed above. Sharpen up loose screws and polish down dusty sentences. By doing so, your writing will gradually improve, and your skills as an author will develop more and more.