If you’ve used applications like Grammarly or Hemingway, you’ll notice how they guide you to always shorten your sentences. When a sentence starts to run into ten words, alarm bells begin to go off even before the apps highlight it. But it’s not only about the sentences. They point out a host of other issues with your writing and most of the points are well-meaning. However, you wouldn’t go two paragraphs without your work starting to look like a rainbow.
That’s one reason wh I turn them off while writing — they can be so distracting! Even worse is the amount of editing I have to do after. I usually have about 30% corrections for long sentences only, and then all the other corrections from the premium versions addressing my choice of vocabulary.
Looking at my sentences, they sound good and the language seems understandable. However, Hemingway would say ‘1 sentence is very hard to understand.’ And I wonder, ‘What could be so difficult to understand in a fifteen-word sentence?’
After a while, I decided to jettison the desire to have a perfect Grammarly or Hemingway score. I realized that I wasn’t writing for the apps but for my audience to read and get my message. If I could correct the misspellings and some punctuation marks, that should be able to satisfy the algorithms.
I finally understood that the applications weren’t my audience and in some way, the desire to have a perfect score interfered with my style. I began to write for Grammarly which wasn’t necessarily the style that would appeal to my audience.
My point is not everything you write is for a general audience. A general style would not always suit the niche you’re writing for, and you can’t always be certain what would appeal to who. So, what criteria determine my writing style?
Here are some writing styles and the kind of audiences they would appeal to.
Grade-level writing for everyone
The general rule is to target grade-level writing and that is a good target for your writing. This usually means simpler sentences and easy-to-understand words. You don’t want your audience to read a sentence more than once to understand it.
Most importantly, grade-level writing works best where you want to capture as wide a band of readers as possible. You’d find this style in the Bible, newspapers, magazines, marketing materials, and self-help books.
The goal is to pass information across quickly and in some cases allow the reader to gobble up two to three sentences at a time. You want the Ph.D. holder as well as the high school dropout to have a conversation with you without feeling out of place.
Another good example is a cookbook. The goal is to present a recipe the audience would understand so they can produce the meal pictured in the book. If for some reason the cook can’t recreate the meal, it’s either the reader isn’t a good cook or the information isn’t clear enough. But isn’t the goal of a cookbook to make bad cooks look like pros?
Writing the way you speak
How can you tell when there’s a punctuation mark in a speech? When a person starts to ramble or speak until they’re out of breath, do we still understand what they say?
Sometimes they join multiple sentences together creating something complex. But we listen and respond. We understand the complexities enough to give a reasonable response when asked a question. In many cases, the complexities make their prose beautiful.
We don’t always speak in fits and stops. We don’t speak in Morse code. So why should we write that way following all the rules?
I like the idea of being conversational or casual when writing. It has its risks and it doesn’t always work which is why some default to the general grade level style. It could affect how seriously people take you as a writer. But remember that your goal is to convey understanding to your reader.
However, the question is — can you get away with it? Being conversational in your writing means breaking a lot of conventional rules. It means losing a few commas here and there, having a lot of can’t, won’t, ain’t, ain’t no, don’t, and shouldn’t in your articles. In some cases, you may end a few sentences with of, for, and about. Cheers to the rule that says you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition.
We find conversational writing more in fiction than non-fiction. How else would we identify with the characters if they all follow the rules and speak the same way? Would you be able to tell the difference between Harry, Hermoine, and Ron, if they used all the commas?
You could also use a casual style of writing if you have an audience that knows you outside of writing. For example, if you’re a public speaker or a comedian with a devoted audience, a book that sounds like you wouldn’t be a bad idea.
If Dave Chappelle wrote a book, it would make sense to see Dave Chappelle in the book, right? Have you ever noticed that when you read a book written by a public figure, you hear them narrating it in your head? You hear Barack Obama when you read Audacity of Hope and you hear Bishop T.D. Jakes when you read Crushing.
Writing in your speaking style may not always mean using a casual style. If you’re an advanced level speaker it would be weird seeing the word ‘big’ rather than ‘tremendous’ in your books.
The key is staying true to yourself and keeping your voice similar across all platforms, whether it’s speaking before an audience of thousands, or writing a bestselling book.
Promoting your class because you are better than average
Not everyone writes only to pass a message across. Or, information is not the only thing we want our readers to get when we write.
More often than not, we write to promote ourselves. We write to appear to be something because that’s how we want others to perceive us.
We want to be addressed based on who we really are, for example, our title or professional accomplishment. But while some don’t place much emphasis on these, some people prefer to be addressed in certain ways. So when they write, they communicate that desire along with the information.
For example, a Ph.D. holder can write an article and have just his first and last name as the byline. But when he introduces himself as Dr. Smith and writes in high-sounding advanced vocabulary, he wants to come across as educated. He wants to prove that he is what his title suggests.
The goal is more often to build credibility in your chosen field and show your readers they can trust you. A Ph.D. writing a thesis won’t write the same way a poet or short story writer would. The vocabulary would be different as well as the sentence complexity.
We connect with our audiences through both the information and the style we use. Through these we also build credibility. We come to expect certain types of output from people with specific designations. If someone calls himself a professor, I don’t expect to read grade-level prose. I’ll expect advanced language and some sentences that meander through a couple of phrases before arriving at a point.
We attract people that like ‘what’ and ‘how’ we write
Our writing is a representation of who we are. Once we are set in a style, people will come to know us for it and those who like that style would come for more.
If you write in simple terms, you’ll attract people who enjoy that type of writing, and likewise, if you’re an advanced writer, you’ll get a crowd that loves that too.
Can you imagine if a grade-level book like the Bible was upgraded in vocabulary, sentence structure, and style? Would it still maintain its sense of appeal to the masses?
Our writing style determines who we appeal to and not only our message. Sometimes our writing can come across as snobbish or condescending even though it has vital information that would benefit the reader. Some may have the patience to read it or look past the style, some may even appreciate the style as it is and the rest may pass on it.
The good thing is that we can practice and test the waters before arriving at what suits us and the audience we try to attract. There is nothing like a wrong writing style. We can only assess our style in light of our target audience.
And the lack of a fixed approach to style is a good thing for a writer. It means that if you can score more points on the versatility of styles, you can win more people over. Adding more styles to your toolbox could play out in two ways: a jack of all trades and a master of none or a master of all. Practice is the key.
Alas, any writer’s deepest desire is to appeal to more readers and the right style for the moment would help you achieve that goal.