By Sondre Rasch, Co-founder | Konsus, Inc.
I'm not a writer, but I have written some weird stuff in my life, and our content writers create dozens of articles for companies everyday.
Over the years, I've noticed some patterns. Some articles were widely shared, read and discussed. Others, not so much.
In Steven Pinker's book Sense of Style, he summarizes the function of writing as achieving joint consciousness. I’ve found that to write articles people actually care about, there is one thing they all have to share: capturing the reader's attention. Let me explain.
In this moment, there are many things going on around you that you are not paying attention to. Whatever you are paying attention to is all there is, as far as you are concerned.
If you don’t have my attention, it doesn’t matter what you say or write. Just imagine what it is like listening to a lecture you aren’t paying attention to. Or imagine the feeling of suddenly realizing you weren’t paying attention to a boring textbook you were pretending to read.
Almost nothing goes in when your attention is elsewhere. Understanding how attention works, therefore, is the first principle in writing things people actually read.
Brain science has looked into why this is the case, and into what holds people’s attention. In short, the brain uses two big methods to build models of the world. Top-down is what you expect to be happening. Bottom-up is signals from your senses. The top-down and bottom-up meet in the middle and sort of compare notes. Whenever there is a big difference between the two, the brain calls attention to it to investigate, to figure out what the hell is going on. It wants to learn.
Don’t worry, it's just a cloud
Our brain is constantly looking for patterns, so when something is expected, no extra attention is required, because no learning is required. Anything that is predictable (routine, repetitive, boring) becomes almost invisible.
This is the fundamental challenge of writing something people actually read: writing something that is worthy of attention. Here are six examples of how you can apply this insight into your own writing.
When I find a text enjoyable, it's almost always because I found its contents interesting to read, not because of how well it was written technically. I also find myself incredibly forgiving of sloppy writing if the content is insightful. On the other hand, I can be quite unforgiving of beautifully written texts with no substance.
The biggest blogs on the internet are not by professional writers, but by economics professors, such as MarginalRevolution, and independent nerds writing blogs as long as books, like Tim Urban of WaitButWhy.
Interesting thought precedes interesting words. Richard Feynman, as usual, provides a relevant guide:
“Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough.”
I find this so compelling because whenever you go beneath the surface of something and really try to understand it, even the most boring subject can become fascinating. And at the deepest level, when you get to the first principles, you often find that you can explain many things that previously seemed elusive.
What you are looking for when you're exploring a topic is the insight. This feeling, of insight, of awe, is the emotion that goes viral the most quickly, Jonah Berger found in his study of New York Times articles.
The participants described “awe” as the feelings of wonder and excitement that come from encountering great beauty or new knowledge. You have to rebuild your mental models to assimilate the vast implications of the information; this gets your heart racing, increases your desire for emotional connection and drives you to share your finding with others.
A helpful rule of thumb I’ve found is to try to write something that would add to the total of human knowledge. Start with researching the topic you’re writing about, and try to grasp the ideas at the frontier of science and thought. You’re much more likely to find insights on the branches of knowledge than in the middle of a thick trunk.
What’s funny? Research shows that it’s expectation-violation. Something is funny when there is a big difference between what we expected and what happened. When something captures your attention, then it makes sense in a new way after the reveal.
A surprisingly round nose for a plane
(By the way, funny is not the same as laughter. It’s hard to make people laugh while reading, since most of you are reading this alone, I assume. Laughing out loud is, it turns out, more of a social phenomenon that is only vaguely connected to funny. It’s something we do subconsciously in groups to make other people feel good.)
For something to qualify as funny, this expectation-violation also has to be what the researchers called “low entropy” – meaning it has to make sense. The way they researched this is curious, by the way. Essentially, they showed people strings of random letters and asked them to rate them on being funny from 1 to 10. The letters: “dsaoijfwd” aren't funny, but “himumma” is (apparently).
In writing, I prefer what is called micro-humor. Micro-humor is a play on micro-aggression, and is not the same as jokes. You aren’t awkwardly trying to make people laugh. It’s just a pinch of funny, often accidental, that makes things more interesting.
Any sentence can be micro-funny – it just has to seem like it is going one way, and then suddenly go in a different direction. Two examples:
1. Starting a sentence formally and then ending it informally.
“The psychedelic researchers used four different statistical methods to figure out what the hell was going on.”
2. Contextual micro-humor – something being unexpected, given the context. For example, giving something familiar a new context.
Example from Jerry Seinfeld on detergent commercials: “I think if you’ve got a T-shirt with a bloodstain all over it, maybe laundry isn’t your biggest problem.”
To hold your attention long enough, I have to provide you with a steady pace of new insights.
In school, my writing teacher told us to present all our points in the start of the article, and then discuss them for ages before a grand conclusion. But then I discovered that those articles are boring. Now I find it more enjoyable to read a sequence of things that together draws a bigger picture than to read one really long argument when you already know how the story ends.
A way of making it clear to you that there is a steady stream of insights here is to format your text into small pieces, instead of a big wall of text. You always have motivation to keep reading. Heck, you’re almost done with point three and you’re soon on point four – no reason to stop now.
Splitting things up also has the added benefit of making the entire article less daunting to start reading in the first place.
Which formatting variant you choose is, I think, less important. In this article I went for the list variant. Though I’ve seen that subtitles, sections and even numbered chapters work very well.
Anything that breaks patterns is unexpected, right? Of course, you shouldn’t overdo it. Then it would trend towards entropy. Let me see how close we can get.
There is guaranteed boring writing. Take this paragraph, for example. It’s just a regular paragraph. But there is one exception. Do you notice something odd? Every sentence has five words.
Varying sentence length makes the writing new, and fresh. It’s unpredictable. It’s almost kind of musical, like a natural voice. And it can be used – like pictures or analogies – to add some drama to your story.
Speaking of images. That is another way to add variety to your story: to break the pattern and give the reader a break from this boring text for a second, for some sweet visual release.
Graphs are a great way to quickly convey a complex message, and break up text
The difference between fascinating and insightful is how useful it feels. Anything that seems useful to you is more captivating than general information. If you’re going to be making a complicated point, you might want to start with an example or three. Plus, examples are often more fun to read than my moralizing.
A simple way to make examples out of thin air that I’ve abused in this article is to simply use words like “you” and “I” instead of “a person” or “someone.. For example:
“If someone applies this method without exception, the result will be chaotic.”
“If you apply this method without exception, you’ll end up with chaos.”
A bonus is that concrete examples can be persuasive, especially if your point is kind of abstract. I read somewhere that “Everyone generalizes from one example, at least I do,” which behavioral science has shown to be unfortunately true.
Our brain intuitively evaluates the probability of something by seeing how easy it is to come up with examples of that thing happening. This human bias is called the availability heuristic.
If you’re claiming something that is logical, but the reader has no previous examples, you might want to supply one or two. If not, it might feel untrue, even if it makes sense.
The goal of writing is communicating. Whenever you use a word that your reader doesn’t know, you often lose their attention, and the communication stops.
Using odd, awkward words and sentences seem to especially affect people who know a lot. The curse of knowledge, the inability to imagine what it is like to not know something, is the root cause of this disease, according to Steven Pinker.
There is hope. There are ways to communicate more complicated topics with simple words and concise sentences. XKCD took this to the extreme by explaining rocket science using only the 1000 most-used words. He even made a word-checker that you can use here.
Using words people understand makes you understood. Paul Graham has an neat rule-of-thumb: write like you talk. A simple hack to writing articles that makes sense is to read your text out loud to yourself.
Regarding click-bait: Telling people something that activates their fear or curiosity can certainly trick them – but if the content doesn’t live up to the hype, or seems needlessly exploitative of human weakness, readers will notice, and gradually learn to respond less. Here, as elsewhere in life, honesty pays in the long run.
Spending some effort improving your writing is probably worthwhile. A 2007 study found that half of all academic articles are read by three people or less. I am sure there are some incredible ideas hidden in texts that would be known, had they been communicated better.
I also think that writing content people actually want to read has value in its own right. Our attention is our experience, and our conscious experience is really all we have. So if nothing else, you’re helping fill the Internet with better experiences, and less noise.
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