Years ago I used to be an English teacher. If I had one piece of advice for nonfiction writers who are aiming to inform or persuade, it would be:
write your blog post like it’s a picture book
Picture books are short. They use easy-to-understand words. They have extremely simple structures with a beginning, middle and end. And, crucially, they include pictures.
Why should you picture-book-ify your posts? I have three reasons for you:
It’s respectful to your readers
It’s harder to screw up
All else being equal, it’s more persuasive
1. respect your readers with small words
EA Forum readers are busy people: CEOs, university students, parents, people working on international development in the field, professors, researchers (and sometimes even many of these things!).
You don’t want to waste their time by making them unsure what you mean or whether your post would be useful for them.
Writing simply means they can more easily understand what you’re trying to say and how useful it would be for their work and life.
2. avoid screw-ups with small words
Small words are easier to read when you’re tired, definitely. They also (usually) make you less likely to miscommunicate or be misunderstood.
I’m not talking about specific technical terms that might be essential to your work. I’m talking about the words around those. You probably do need to use words like external validity or corrigibility, but you could probably swap as these efforts proceed for as we keep working.
3. persuade people with small words
I heard once that people are more likely to be persuaded by suggestions written in plain English. I don’t remember the mechanism, but it seems intuitive to me - suggestions written in plain English are easier to understand, quicker to digest, and will make your reader feel smarter than suggestions written in complex language.
I’m glad my small words have been so persuasive. So how do you picture-book-ify your post?
make it shorter (try to stick below 1000 words, break into multiple posts if necessary, keep paragraphs short as well if people will be reading on mobile)
use easy-to-understand words
simplify (and signpost) your structure
add pictures (or graphs, or maps, or tables, or…)
For the first two points, use the Hemingway Editor to simplify your writing. I use it constantly.
And for a good example of what I’m talking about, check out the 80,000 Hours classic 2017 guide.
They break up the text with illustrations that reinforce their main points. They have a clear, logical structure that you can see on the left-hand side of the page. The Hemingway Editor says it’s written at a Grade 7 reading level (appropriate for a 12 year old reader). It’s not short at just over 4000 words, but the paragraphs are short and it’s easy to find your place again if you need to take a break. This is exactly what I’d like to see more of on the Forum!
See a great Forum post like this? Please let me know in the comments.
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