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.

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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.