How to Use Language Like a Pro

How to Use Language Like a Pro

Pick one of your favorite bloggers.

What keeps you going back to their blog again and again?

Maybe they give great information. Maybe they answer all their comments. But what probably really matters to you is their style.

Let me throw out a few names for you:

I’m hoping you’re familiar with at least a couple of these people. If not, go click the links and read a few posts – all these guys have writing worth a solid browse-through.

Now let me give you four extracts from their blog posts. Your goal is to match the four people with their writing style:

Extract #1:

Interesting & Interested

… it helps to be both. These are the two ways you earn attention.

If it’s so obvious, why is it so difficult?

Extract #2:

So if your blog isn’t your business, then what is? Hell if I know – it’s your business. (Actually, I probably do know, but I save that for the clever and attractive people who send me pots of money in exchange for the privilege of being my clients.) But giving some thought to the idea of what you are actually doing for money, and what you plan to do for money, and what you plan to do for consistently increasing sums of money in the future might be a good idea. I’m just saying.

Extract #3:

People always say, “I wish I was amazing. I wish I was awesome.”

Fucking hell. Stop whining and just be it already. Be fucking awesome.

Nobody’s going to give you the gift of awesome. Nobody’s going to make you good, or great, or amazing, or epic. Nobody’s going to make you an expert or an authority or a voice anyone should listen to. Nobody’s going to level you up. If you want that next level, take it. Take it for yourself.

Extract #4:

If your post is about helping people to overcome some need, problem or challenge that they have, a simple statement about your own experience of that need can be an effective way to go. Putting it in these personal terms shows your readers that you’re able to empathize with their need, and are writing from a more personal point of view.

Alternatively, you might not have the problem yourself. You could write in a less personal tone, but still highlight the need your reader might have.

Can you tell which person wrote each excerpt?

If you weren’t familiar with the bloggers in question, maybe not. But at the very least you can see how different the styles are. You can hear each person’s voice in the way they write.

If you had to pick three words to describe each style, which would you choose?

These are my choices (though yours might be different):

  • Extract #1: Straightforward, concise, thought-provoking.
  • Extract #2: Conversational, funny, disarming.
  • Extract #3: Direct, forceful, energetic.
  • Extract #4: Calm, gentle, thorough.

And just so you can see how accurately you know your favorite bloggers, the excerpts are written by:

#1: Seth Godin – Interesting & Interested (that “extract” is actually the whole post)

#2: Naomi Dunford – Your Blog Is Not Your Business

#3: Johnny B. Truant – The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You

#4: Darren Rowse – 10 Tips for Opening Your Next Blog Post

Did you find any style hard to distinguish? Naomi and Johnny have a fairly similar writing style on the surface (we’ll be taking a closer look later on), so you might have struggled with those two.

And which style made you want to read on? Did you find the swearing in Johnny’s piece refreshingly energetic or unnecessarily aggressive? Did Seth’s piece make you say, “Aha!” or, “So what?”

There’s no correct way to react to these pieces – but whatever you thought of them, it’s worth digging deep to work out what the writers are doing and why it’s having a particular effect.

Let’s take a closer look at:

  • Sentence length and structure
  • Word choices

Sentence Length and Structure

Here’s Johnny’s piece again:

People always say, “I wish I was amazing. I wish I was awesome.”

Fucking hell. Stop whining and just be it already. Be fucking awesome.

Nobody’s going to give you the gift of awesome. Nobody’s going to make you good, or great, or amazing, or epic. Nobody’s going to make you an expert or an authority or a voice anyone should listen to. Nobody’s going to level you up. If you want that next level, take it. Take it for yourself.

Johnny writes short, powerful sentences that add energy to his piece. Some aren’t what your English teacher would call sentences, either. For instance, “Fucking hell” is really just an expostulation. But in informal, conversational writing like blogging, very short sentences consisting of a single phrase or even a single word can be very effective.

Johnny deliberately patterns the sentences in his third paragraph. I’m going to split them up here to make the pattern easier to see:

  • Nobody’s going to give you the gift of awesome.
  • Nobody’s going to make you good, or great, or amazing, or epic.
  • Nobody’s going to make an expert or an authority or a voice anyone should listen to.
  • Nobody’s going to level you up.

This is the sort of pattern often used in spoken language – you can imagine a politician or a motivational speaker using a similar pattern, though. And the pattern helps reinforce Johnny’s point, hammering home the fact that “nobody’s going to do it for you.”

Now, compare Johnny’s sentence style with Darren’s:

If your post is about helping people to overcome some need, problem or challenge that they have, a simple statement about your own experience of that need can be an effective way to go. Putting it in these personal terms shows your readers that you’re able to empathize with their need, and are writing from a more personal point of view.

Alternatively, you might not have the problem yourself. You could write in a less personal tone, but still highlight the need your reader might have.

Darren’s sentences are much longer than Johnny’s. There are no single-phrase sentences here. This is one of the reasons why Darren’s writing comes across as more formal and information-focused.

Being more formal isn’t a bad thing. It can make you sound more authoritative. The point is that Darren’s writing creates a distinctly different effect than Johnny’s writing, because Darren is trying to present an entirely different image and style.

Using Sentence Length and Structure

Some blogs almost always use short, snappy sentences – take a look at any post on Copyblogger, for instance. Others have a calmer, more introspective style, like Darren uses.

Which is right for you and your audience? How can your sentence structure and length help give your writing a particular tone?

If you’re writing a post where you’re trying to emphasize an important message, could you use a pattern like Johnny’s “Nobody’s going to…” for rhetorical effect?

Word Choices

Let’s take a closer look at Naomi’s piece, looking in particular at how her word choices differ from Johnny’s – because while not all that obvious, their writing styles are different.

Here’s Naomi’s extract again:

So if your blog isn’t your business, then what is? Hell if I know – it’s your business. (Actually, I probably do know, but I save that for the clever and attractive people who send me pots of money in exchange for the privilege of being my clients.) But giving some thought to the idea of what you are actually doing for money, and what you plan to do for money, and what you plan to do for consistently increasing sums of money in the future might be a good idea. I’m just saying.

Some of the words and phrases strike me as quintessentially Naomi:

  • Hell (yes, I know Johnny uses this one too)
  • Pots of money
  • I’m just saying

Naomi is known for her swearing as well, so much that you might have been surprised that “hell” was the only bad word in this paragraph.

The phrase “pots of money” is one that Naomi uses often (in fact, she goes further and writes “pots and pots of money” – see How to Make Unstupid Goals and a comment on Ask IttyBiz: Buzz Cuts, England, Comments and Ducks).

“I’m just saying” is used in 22 posts/comments on Naomi’s blog.

Naomi’s tone is a little tongue-in-cheek. For instance, “the clever and attractive people who send me pots of money in exchange for the privilege of being my clients.” The attitude towards the reader is supportive: Naomi is giving us a firm nudge rather than yelling in our faces.

Compare this with Johnny, whose general tone is more aggressive and in-your-face than Naomi’s. He uses phrases like “stop whining” and “take it for yourself,” along with a lot more cussing.

While both of them use humor and current common slang like “awesome” and “epic,” their styles actually wind up having quite different effects because of the way they use language.

Naomi uses it like a friendly punch on the shoulder to jolly a friend into a good mood. Johnny’s out there using his language – and a lot of the same words – to give that same friend some much-needed straightforward tough love.

Using Words and Phrases

Are there any words and phrases that are characteristic of your language? You don’t want to overdo them – but they can help you to establish your voice.

Are there any words or phrases that you want to avoid?

Maybe you don’t want to swear on your blog, because you feel it would give your writing an aggressive tone. Maybe you’re sick of being told to do “epic shit”.

How formal or informal do you want to be? Are you going to write “small business” or “itty biz”?

When you edit your posts, pay close attention to the words you use. English is an amazingly rich language, with a wealth of words that have the same meaning but different nuances. Think of scheme, concoct, plan and plot, for instance.

Your Turn: Take Apart a Piece of Writing

I’ve shown you how I dig into sentence and examine how top bloggers use particular words and phrases. Now it’s your turn: find a blog post or other piece of copy and take it apart.

Start by looking at:

  • The lengths of sentences. How much do they vary? Are any sentences just one or two words long, and if so, what’s the effect?
  • Patterning or other techniques used in the sentence structure. Why has the blogger chosen to do this?
  • Words or phrases that stand out. Are they neologisms (made-up words like “ittybiz”)? Or are they familiar words used in an unusual way?

If you learn something new or come up with a great technique for letting your own voice shine in your writing, let us know in the comments.

If you'd like to learn more about using language to create effective writing that brings you better business results, check out Damn Fine Words. It's the only writing course designed to get business results... and it's open right now for registration. Click here to learn more.

Post by Ali Luke

Ali Luke is a writer and writing coach from the UK. If you enjoyed this post, check out her piece Should You Be Writing Shorter Paragraphs? over on her own blog, Aliventures. Or, even better, grab her RSS feed for regular in-depth posts about all aspects of blogging and writing.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. At work so I can dig into this post like I want to but here’s the thing: I matched all the extracts correctly.

    Actually, I recognized 3 and figured the third was Darren’s. Seth’s is easy to pick out. If you’ve read one post by him, you can pick out his writing.

    The second I read ‘Hell if I know’ in extract two, I had Naomi in my head and fucking hell/fucking awesome is just so Johnny!

    As for Darren’s, I kinda got lost in the long first sentence. But realized only Darren was left :)

    Okay, back to the point. The fact that I matched the extracts correctly says A LOT about their writing style and personality.

    • Yeah – it’s a fun exercise! On blogs with multiple authors (or where the same people regularly guest-post), you can often tell who a piece is by long before you see their name…

  2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer in possession of a good idea must be in want of a voice.

    Voice is a subject that authors never get tired of writing about, and aspiring writers never reading about. Your post hones in the point well. I really enjoyed reading it.

    I’ll have a shot at defining my own voice if I may.

    Colloquial, conversational, concise, straightforward, quirky, inspiring (hopefully).
    It can take different personas depending upon the mood I am in. It can get funny, disarming, energetic, loud, hysterical. These are just shades of my voice – not every piece has to be funny, or serious, or earth shattering. Often when a writer writes with the same persona all the time, they get very monotonous.

    Thanks Ali. This was really good. Really :)

    Marya

  3. Fabulous post! I guessed 2 of the authors correctly, but I’m not familiar with Naomi so I thought the “Calm, gentle, thorough” voice was probably female. Oops.

    I’ve never been all that good at identifying *why* good writing is good, I just knew what I liked. But now I’m trying to go back and learn the more technical aspects of writing so that I can offer my clients really exceptional work.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Alexa! That’s an interesting example of the gendered assumptions that we make … however much I wish I could read everything neutrally, I do read the same piece slightly differently when I know the author’s female rather than male.

      There’s so much to learn about writing, and I find that studying other writers is one of the best ways to turn theory into practice.

  4. The fun thing here is that I do most of this by feel, so it’s interesting to see my writing dissected. You’re totally right, though… the punchiness of the sentences was intended to fit the mood of that section. But again, I couldn’t have articulated that, probably.

    The thing I’ll add is that many writers change their voice a bit when writing different pieces, or when writing to different audiences. There are parts of that same post where my voice is very different… hopefully a bit more thoughtful or even wistful. In those places I wax on a bit more, and my sentences are different. Similarly, when I write for Copyblogger, I write differently because the “mood in the room” is seldom the same as on my own site. It’s not corrupting style; it’s adapting in the same way you’d speak differently to a motivational rally than you would to a church group. Both are you, but both call for different voices.

    • I think most of us do it by instinct rather than laborious design … at least, I know I do! For a long time I didn’t think I *had* a voice/style, and then I realised it’s a bit like having an accent … you can only spot other people’s, not your own. ;-)

      And I completely agree with you about adapting your voice for different occasions (Marya mentioned the same thing above). I do exactly the same: my “voice” when I post for MwP is different from when I post for Connection Revolution — different audiences, different purposes.

      (Hm, I feel like there’s the seed of a whole new post in here…)

  5. When I read the excerpts from the people you listed above, I knew exactly who wrote which piece. I’m familiar with each of their writing styles so it’s as if I could hear their words in their own tone of voice.

    Here’s what you have me thinking now though… I’m wondering if my style of writing is so obvious? If not, I need to spend some time refining perhaps…

    • I’d suggest asking a friend to help by describing your current style before you do too much refining. Often, it’s easy to see other people’s styles but harder to see your own!

  6. This reminds me of the times I’ve guest posted on Copyblogger. Several people would email me each time and say, “I started to read and made it about 1/3 of the way before I thought, ‘Hmmmm, this sounds like James…’ Sure enough!”

    Was funny. Still makes me grin, because I do the same with my favorite writers.

  7. Ali, the funny thing is, while I recognized the 4 bloggers, I didn’t recognize you until I read your bio at the end.

    I mean it makes sense. Your style is thoughtful, has great content, teaches but doesn’t pound you, has an interesting topic and great comparisons… but Naomi and Johnny’s swear words give you a whole new dimension. And really, Seth and Darren are practically “god’s appointed” ministers…. FA.

    • Hehe — maybe that’s cos I was doing something a bit different in this post, or simply because I don’t have an especially strong voice! I do a lot of freelancing/guest-posting around the web, so I tend to adapt, chameleon-like, to the blog that I’m on…

      • Ali the Chameleon–I like that. Actually that’s very philosophical and practical. Researchers say the reason there are so many different kinds of lizards–and they have survived from prehistoric times– is BECAUSE they could adapt and blend into the environment.

        Ali, you definitely have a lovely voice, sometimes you shout, sing and whisper. You are making it as a freelancer because you know why, where and how to use it.

  8. One (of the many) things I like about this tutorial is how it breaks down finding your voice into a process. While one’s voice partly comes from gut feelings and who someone is, it isn’t all esoteric muse or mystically driven by any means.

    I think a lot of people struggle or are afraid to try finding their voice because they’ve only been told to go at it from the emotional, dig deep inside to find it and they’re not good at that stuff to begin with. Even if all someone reads are the examples, it’s going to help them get going in the right direction. Clearly, there are practical elements both in understanding what voice is and how to find yours. It’s something most people can learn to do.

    Great stuff! I shared it with my community today as well.

    • Thanks for sharing it, Cheryl – much appreciated!

      I’m not a very mystical person ;-) so I like the direct approach. Of course, there’s absolutely a psychological, emotional dimension to writing (and that’s very important too) — but it goes hand-in-hand with the practical side of things.

  9. YES!!!!!! YES YES YES. Seriously, I love this post so much I could cry. Mostly because I’ve only just started realizing that the people I go back to time and time again have a very specific way of writing. They’re funny. A little sarcastic. They write like they speak. I know a lot of people think you “shouldn’t” write this way, it’s what speaks to me and what speaks to millions of other people. So knowing that helps me write better but now I desperately want to pick apart their writing the way you have. Nicely done!

    • :-D Thanks, Marian! And go ahead and pick apart the writing of the people whose work you love most — it’s a great exercise. (You might want to focus especially on what exactly they have in common, because that’s probably a good clue towards your own writing voice.)

      Frankly, in my not-so-humble opinion, there’s no “shouldn’t” when it comes to writing style. Personally, there are some extremes I’d steer clear of (I don’t want to communicate in txt spk) — but really, what’s important is that your style is right for your audience and purpose. For most blogging-type writing, a conversational style is just perfect.

  10. As a copywriter, I love this post because it has a great hidden tip… when you’re writing copy for someone you should always, always read their blog so you can get a handle on their voice and then match it up in your copy. It will be more familiar and appealing to your readers and it will make your client more comfortable, too.

  11. Ali, I have done a laboratory analysis of your content, and I have discovered this:

    57% lean protein
    33% complex carbohydrates (all low-glycemic index)
    7% fats (high lip gloss)
    3% inert ingredients (mostly old-school punctuation)

    Which adds up to healthy, easily digested and good for you (“you” being me). Food for thought.

  12. Each blogger has his/her own unique way of blogging which makes him/her well-known in the “blogger-world.” It’s like having a trademark and once people notice it they will know immediately who the author of the blog is. :) just my two cents.. :)

  13. Years ago I found out one of my favorite romance authors was a man who had used a female pseudonym. I was so upset . . . for a while. When I started writing, I realized he had just mastered his ‘voice’ and I needed to do the same.

  14. Appreciate the in-depth and thoughtful post. I love that blogging has allowed so many more people to embrace their own personal voice. Although isn’t it fully how finding that voice is often the biggest challenge of all?

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