You’ve spent hours researching and crafting the “perfect” post, only to have readers scroll past it or hit the delete key.

Been there? What keeps readers from abandoning the content you’ve birthed with so much conviction?

Aside from the usual marketing advice — know your readers, their pains, solve a problem, yada yada — some of the best editing advice I’ve received came from a handout in a journalism class at Harvard. I’ve often shared it with fellow writers and watched their eyes widen, as if I’d revealed a secret.

You get to read it next, thanks to Martha Nichols, editor in chief at Talking Writing, who graciously let me share it.

Keep in mind Martha presented this advice for a First-Person Journalism class, so it’s most applicable when writing from a personal perspective as bloggers, advice and opinion writers often do.

Behold, 10 practices that weaken your writing and turn off readers:

  1. Self-Reflective Commentary
    Watch for the blogger’s tic, as Martha calls it: “too many side comments or too much meta-talk,” as in “I’m sitting in front of the computer now, wondering what to write, amazed that it’s so hard.”
  2. Personal Musings Without Facts
    Avoid raising questions that aren’t answered and could be answered with a bit of research, says Martha. Here’s an example: I recently read a post where the author dishing out health advice wrote “I don’t now what the side effects of [drug XYZ] are, but here’s what I recommend…” How hard would it have been to google that info and include it in the post?
  3. Ax Grinding
    A complaining or snarky tone could be a problem, says Martha. So is giving pet peeves too much space in your message. Rants are big distractions, unless that’s the focus and goal of your piece.
  4. Exaggerated Claims
    Like Chris Harrison proclaiming the “most dramatic season ever” of The Bachelor franchise, hyperbole costs you some credibility points. So does “over-stating, overly breathless prose,” writes Martha.
  5. More Tone Problems
    Overly academic prose (think stiff, uber formal language) is another turnoff. So is switching into the oracular “we” voice too often, Martha explains: “the preacher’s tic.”
  6. Throat Clearing
    Like that friend who hems and haws before getting to the point, long intros or “generic background text that’s filler before the real story” is another reader repellent.
  7. Rhetorical Questions
    Nothing wrong with an occasional rhetorical question, but avoid “posing a string of questions instead of making a definite statement of fact (the ranter’s tic) or offering an actual opinion (the handwringer’s tic).”
  8. Attribution Problems
    “Incorrect or not enough information about where a quote/data/idea comes from.” (Content marketers, take note.)
  9. Word-Usage Problems
    “Words that are incorrect, odd, or provocative — anything that will distract a reader.” If the language doesn’t reflect how real people talk, it’s not likely to go over well with real people.
  10. Unexamined Assumptions
    “’Everyone knows’ or a statement of conventional wisdom that may not be true or should be questioned,” cautions Martha: “Verify, verify, verify.”

All common sense, yes, but not common practice. And it does take consistent practice to shed these bad habits. (I’m preaching to myself here too.) But if awareness is the first step to recovery then, hey, we’ve already made progress, eh? Thanks, Martha.

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