How I Changed My Writing in 50 Days

They say it takes 3 weeks to create a habit; go to the gym regularly for 21 days and you will build up the routine-forming momentum to carry you effortlessly into the future. Easier said than done, since it has been my experience that those first 3 weeks are the hardest (and the physical and mood improvements of having gone to the gym don’t make sitting on my couch any less appealing in advance of going to the gym), but perhaps that’s exactly the point – the first 3 weeks are the hardest, and then it gets easier.

This 7-week writing course followed a similar pattern for me. Organizing course materials, carving out work time, and building an understanding of what to expect (and what is expected) takes time and cannot be rushed. Looking back on the course as a whole, feeling only now that I’ve found my groove, I can see three areas in which I developed.

There are time-tested, established strategies that writers use to create effect. The rule of 3’s, the activating of language, the verbing of descriptions and adjectives, avoiding 3 words when 2 will do – the list goes on – and each helps me add effectiveness. Through these techniques ,I can make choices about how to communicate my message with style.

Adopting a sense of audience helps me focus and direct my message to the right person. I develop character persona that influence my word choices so girls in Grade 8 and adult colleagues alike are receiving text from me with a differentiated tone. I can thin out my information and keep content lean by understanding their WIIFM (What’s In It For Me).

My aha moment in this course came through the experience of writing weekly. Writing is a muscle. As muscles are supported by joints, bones and even nutrition, writing requires supports – information, environment and even nutrition. Writing can be lean or built; it can perform or disappoint; it can delight or ache. Sometimes, existing layers of writing skill must be shredded to make way for something newer, stronger.

One insight I have is that, just as exercise builds a hunger for different nutrients, writing has triggered my desire to read differently. I find that I am craving models of quality writing to influence my own developing style and have less appetite for the common pop style of the social media echo chamber.

As this post and the course each draw to a close, I am making a public commitment to blog more and to apply these new skills when I do. You can find me over at and I’ll be excited to receive your comments there.

Thanks for being with me in this 7 week journey – and here’s to the next 50 days!

Crossposted from the blog, Writing for Learner Engagement. 

The Peril of Templates


If you have ever spent time studying rhetorical patterns in popular media, you might have a keenly developed *nonsense* detector. I know I do. It isn’t actual *nonsense* we detect – it’s other things, like bias or unfair power dynamics – but the view of our world through a critical lens sets off those tiny little alarm bells anytime we think someone might be trying to influence us against our sensible wills.

One of these alarm bells goes off anytime I leaf through templates. While designing my infographic this week, I was both grateful for the visual support and leery of the many decisions I was agreeing to through this single choice. It is too easy to accept what is offered without considering all the different decisions it bundles. It’s outsourcing your design without drafting an RFP. Uninformed as I was when I made the selection, it was only while I working within its playground that I became aware of its features. It’s choosing something for superficial reasons and hoping it works out.

Move up the title box and a separate dropshadow reveals itself. Select all items in the header and discover that odd symbol (equal parts signpost and speech bubble) is actually hiding a tree top so the eye can so subtly detect similar elements used to frame each section title below. Clever, but I can’t claim credit for the design. At most, it’s because I chose well.

To be fair, it’s not over til it’s over. Choose the wrong story logic, try it out, learn through your mistake, make a better choice, keep going. The writing process of drafting and editing isn’t linear and neither is, nor should be, immune from the welcome influence of outside suggestion.

So maybe that’s the point. When you or I choose a good template, we reap a double benefit of having something that looks the way we want it without having to build it from scratch. We can learn about our message by trying on an offered suggestion, and adjust it ourselves as we go along. Once we press the ‘publish’ button and stamp our name to claim responsibility for the good and bad, we can be assured through our own due diligence as a writer that someone else’s generic template matches the impact we intend. We offer credit to the template designer as credit is due.

And as for being leery of templates, perhaps simply being aware of the influence they can have is half the battle.

Crossposted from the blog, Writing for Learner Engagement. 

The Rules for Writing Online Content Are Not What You Think

What’s different about online?

If you think writing online content is particularly different from writing print content, think again!

It’s not the medium that determines the rules; it’s another factor. It doesn’t have a name, so let’s call it Todd. Todd is combination of audience and form – a double-whammy that helps guide you to write in a way that can be easily read. If you multiply the attention span of your audience by the chaos of the form, you get your Todd Factor.

The higher the Todd factor, the more you need to:

  • Leave white space to let text breathe
  • Use particular fonts that are easy to read
  • Include bold text to emphasize headings for easy scanning

You also need to:

  • Provide images that replace text information but also provide a mental break.
  • Use a catchy narrator voice that makes you sound hip and relatable. (Know what I mean?)
  • Chunk details into 3s. This list used to be just one, but I caught myself in editing.

Lower Todd Factors mean that the audience’s attention span can be expected to be longer, or the form is quiet. This allow for more colourful language, longer prose, and lists in regular text prose. My blog has lots of white space, the Metro free newspaper has little of that.

To the degree that there are differences in online / offline reading, the rules depend more on the human context of your form than on your medium alone.

That’s all for this week,

P.S. The interview with Josh reminded me how much more attention you can earn when you make a social connection with the reader / listener / viewer. The art framed in Kristi’s mis-en-scene had an impact on the amount of caring I brought to listening to the interview. This weekend at the HotDocs Podcast festival, I saw a podcaster in real life that I previously had only heard in voice, and this already made listening to recent episodes a more fulsome experience.

I guess seeing or hearing a person creates a connection to them as a narrator and perhaps buys them a couple more pages of attention in print, or an extra few seconds of eye scanning on their blog.

Flesh Reading Level 65.8

Crossposted from my now-retired blog, Writing for Learner Engagement. 

5 Hard Parts of Writing Lean

5. Avoiding throat clearing. It was tempting to write an introduction to this list, but the title says enough.

4. Slashing whole thoughts. It’s easy to wordsmith sentences, but truly slimming content means slashing nice-to-have ideas if they aren’t priority thoughts.

3. Maintaining voice and connection. I hate to admit it, but an audience isn’t given; it’s earned. While I love to think that my readers are drawn naturally to my genius ideas, an occasional moment of in·im·i·ta·ble human honesty helps build and maintain the relationship. It’s okay to address you directly. I love you.

2. Loosening arguments. Each piece has a unique balance of length, attention, and quality. A thesis without arguments is vacuous. There is such a thing as too skinny to function.

1. Formulaic Construction is unimaginative. The plethora of 3, 4, and 5 item listicles may make the 4±1 rule seem tired, but there is comforting familiarity in these structures. Sometimes, tried and true is what works.

Crossposted from my now-retired blog, Writing for Learner Engagement. 

Do Not Say We Have Only Text

Crossposted from my now-retired blog, Writing for Learner Engagement. 

4 min read

Our digital culture is noisy. The space we call “online” is flooded with visual clutter and gutless content. The attention we deliver to incoming electronic communications is fractured and highly sought by forces more powerful than the average joe communicator. Marketing teams with full-time writers and data analysts know just the right words to use in a post triggered at just the right time. So, in such an environment, how can an email to teachers with instructions about how to use our Report Card program compete with the temptation of professionally-crafted distraction?

To me, the answer is this: despite this critically-low ratio of signal to noise, people yearn for connection and meaning in their content. Our psychology may betray us as we respond to click-bait but, deep down, we crave content that matters, that actually helps us advance and improve ourselves. I chose this plain blog theme as my gift to you – a chance to experience calm when reading online, to be as distraction-free as I may provide on your behalf.

This week, I found myself mimicking some of the conventions of the click-bait posts we’ve all seen around the Internet. As I mentioned in a discussion post elsewhere, titles such as 5 Things I learned this week (and number 3 will blow your mind) are no longer clever; they are beneath us. I refuse to copy them. I am struggling to create an alternate voice for myself that strays from conventions I have otherwise adopted. Softening academic, precise, correct language into something that reads more colloquially – and feels more relatable – is my challenge for the week.

In the re-writing assignment, the damage of inactive text became clear. I worked to create an audience that I can speak to directly, and built the language around a reader character. “You will be able to…”, “Your friends will thank you”, “Don’t you hate when…”, and pulling in the reader by including myself by saying “Those of us who…”. Saying, not just writing. There is a balance between the reader understanding consciously that the text has a writer, and being able to construct an abstract narrator and allow them to speak. Speak, not just write or be read. That kind of language brings writing to life. This kind of language brings life to writing. Such subtle differences are at once subjective and respectful. Even if being spoken to is not your cup of tea, at least the writer tried. You have got to give them points for that!

In the emails I send to staff, I work hard at being concise, but I also adopt the linguistic norms I experience from my school’s communication culture. I quickly replaced “Hi Everyone” with “Hello Faculty” or “Hi Grade 9-12 Teachers”, hoping that activating the salutation of my note would give a reader a sense of the company they kept as part of an intended audience. I aspire not to use 2 words when 1 will do, but sometimes the second word enhances the specificity of my instruction.

From early conversations with my colleagues, I remember receiving conflicting advice. “Adam, just tell me exactly what to do, in explicit detail, and I’ll do it – can’t go wrong.” Others asked, “why are there so many instructions? Too much reading! Just give me the big picture; I’ll try it and ask for help if I get stuck.” Over the years, I have hacked away, using formatting such as headings to give a sense of the most important information, and organizational structures to help provide detail without making it mandatory or overwhelming. The language is active but concise. I don’t editorialize when addressing the targeted mass, though I do violate my own beliefs about email as an information-only medium and use pleasantries like “I hope you are having a wonderful weekend” and “Good luck with Report Cards” as a way to project context and establish a reader’s relationship.

I think the main difference about writing for learner engagement is that it supposes a new form and a different purpose for reading. While I will always view face-to-face interaction as superior and preferred, I can think of a few people who would prefer never to have to speak face to face. They enjoy the safety of keeping their communications asynchronous. It gives them time to think, time to process, time to craft a response. These affordances are important to their own task orientation – moreso than the social elements of work life – and I need to respect this diversity, too. Writing readable content involves crafting a relationship and motivating the reader to want to participate. It upgrades a functional collection of information to make it instructive and memorable, or, at the very least, enjoyable.

I hope you can sense my struggle, and that it resonates with you, too. Thanks for the time you invested in reading this post through to the end. Your comments or feedback are encouraged, and certainly most welcome. – Adam