#3 – I Know You, Writer

(waits turn and stands)

Hello, my name is Anthony Pensabene (sometimes Content Muse because I celebrate using an alias despite being an adult, but I digress with your attention.)

I love to write.

I’ve been doing it for some time now and won’t cease.  Don’t try to stop me.

Writer haters get away, or my lead will spray.

Once upon a time, I helped younger people write.  I still do.  I’m creating an army.

Be afraid.

Today, I would like to review composition.  Not everyone is a true writer. However, a lot of us write online as a form of communication.

Communication is grand.  It makes the world go round.  Great communication bonds us closer as people.

If you stutter, mispronounce words, make shit up, and commit other verbal errors, most people dismiss it.

However, if you misplace a modifier or dangle a participle while writing, people secretly judge and laugh at you for all eternity (or until Google unplugs us from the Matrix).

If you don’t care about writing better, you insult me; you may not buy me a Johnnie Walker Black rocks; and, upon sourer mood, I’d ask Jed to remove you from the saloon, but we cool.

We’ll use The Elements of Style to review a number of writing tips.  (Huge hat tip to Garrett French <— for reminding me to always be a writer in progression.)

The writing manual addresses usage and composition.  For our purposes here, I would like to focus on a few points of composition.

We have the manual, but we need a subject to properly undergo the experiment.

I am willing to sacrifice myself for the people.  I have the beard going and everything.

Sometimes, you just gotta say, “What the …,” and make your move.

Back in February of 2012, I wrote a post on gamification.

It didn’t get a lot of reads, but perhaps now as I throw poo at it…

Writing for the Reader

Outta Space

To start, the Elements suggest making each paragraph address a topic, and the main idea or thesis of the paragraph be the topic sentence.

As an English teacher, I certainly adhere; but, as a blogger and frequent web reader, I have to counsel you otherwise.  You may notice in this post (and if you keep up with Content Muse) I’ve been liberal with white space.

But I wasn’t always.

Let’s review.  Here is the opening of my gamification post.

It’s not horrific.  Readers won’t immediately leave (due to a lack of space).  However, let’s contrast this with Copyblogger’s post on improved writing.

Take a look at that use of white space, like it ain’t a thing.

For many reasons, I like Copyblogger’s style, but I must thank Brian Clark and the team at BlueGlass for giving me the inspiration to break prose apart, even if I’m writing one line at a time.

It makes for a better read.  It lessens the anxiety of reading.  It’s why we like pictures, nifty infographics, and memes.  It breaks the monotony of text.

It relaxes the readers.

It lets them know things will be okay.  Reading isn’t so bad.

We promise.

I’ve observed a number of you not using a lot of white space.  You’re losing reader interest, possibly before they even begin.

Stop doing that.  Go back to some of your posts, and see how much white space you’re providing.

Command Your Written Word

Use Your Confident Big Girl/Boy Voice

Let’s address using an active voice.  Be assertive. Be direct with the reader.  Write with authority.  Let them know you’re in control of your thoughts and words.

Otherwise, it will seem as if you are unsure.  If you are being unsure of your words than your words lose authority.

Be confident.  You own your words.  It’s not the other way around.  Don’t feel trapped and feeble in your writing cell.

Get outta there!

It may take a few reviews to catch yourself.  Admittedly, I’ve struggled in my younger years with the passive voice, and still observe myself regressing at times.  It’s why self and peer review is important.

Amanda Milligan reminds us of writing better copy and avoiding the passive voice in her homage to 6th-grade teachers.

See how she makes the sentence about Charlie active rather than passive, where the “was” is present?

I start with a passive voice here:

Command words. “Minding brand awareness gets desired attention.”  That’s active.

Secondly, I describe Roger passively (or is it Roger’s described passively?).  “Roger doesn’t lead Whos or Mozzers astray.”  That’s active.

That’s being assertive, controlling your words.

Will people hate you for being passive?  No.  Does the active voice (most times) relay thoughts and meaning better?  Yes.  Do strong writers observe the difference between active/passive voice?  They do.

You have great thoughts.  Make readers realize.  Don’t be passive.  Work on your active writing voice.  Command your words.  Attract reader attention.

There’s a difference. Go back and read posts.  Do you abuse the passive voice?  Can you make your words, and hence your communication, stronger and more active?

Write Positively to Better Promote the Message

Don’t Not Be Positive

Next, let’s discuss phrasing in positive form.  No, it’s not a call for Bob Ross composition.

But I always liked the dude’s hair and attitude.

Let’s return to Elements to understand phrasing in positive form.

When describing something, state what it is rather than what it’s not.  See above: “Use the word, not, …never as a means of evasion.”  Here, evasion means escaping the description of what you’re actually trying to communicate.

“Positive” in this regard, like the active voice above, means being in better control, commanding words rather than letting them weaken conveyed thoughts.

Maintain thought’s strength and thunder when writing.  Achieve goals of written communication.

Let’s tear another little hole in my writing’s hiney, shall we?

Take a look at how I convey meaning here:

“…his intentions are not completely genuine?  That’s not ethical”

I’m negatively phrasing.  Rather, “…his intentions are tarnished.  It’s unethical” would have worked better.

Does it change the meaning of the sentence?  No.  Will it make the reader bounce from the page.  It’s not unlikely.  However, does repetitive abuse weaken writing?  It does.  It’s noticeable, especially when reading a strong writer against a weaker one’s words.

Many of us write in didactic fashion, instructing others.  Writing well helps learners.  Writing well makes for better instruction.

Think of confident speakers.  Now, think of observed nervous speakers.  Who makes the bigger impact on listeners?

Readers are the same.

Observe these writers.  Though you may know them as thought leaders, marketers, best-looking people in the world (Joel was referenced above), and so on, they are strong writers.

–  Danny Sullivan

–  Michelle Lowery

–  Geraldine Deruiter

Jon Morrow

It’s likely you’ve read and revered them for their thoughts, but isolate their command of written communication.

Write Concisely, Choosing Words Well

You Had Me at Hello

Next, let’s discuss needless words.

“Anthony, I like your thoughts, but your papers are often prolix.”

Admittedly, I marched up to my professor’s office, asking him the meaning of “prolix.”  Being transparent, I didn’t know the meaning of the word, but was being a smartass in asking.  To my secretive delight, my English professor, who I’ll assume was also a bit of a smartass, busted out the dictionary, looking it up in front of me.

Well played, sir… Well played…

Prolix means using too many words, using needless words as Elements puts it.

I also (obviously) had a problem with such as a younger man.  I still do.  But, I work toward constant improvement.  We all can.

Let’s snoop on my words being all wordy and not succinct prolix:

Let’s take my first paragraph, where rather than being succinct, I like to pet my creativity in attempts to impress some reader who likely does not exist.

I’m a fan of my writing, but I can improve that opening paragraph.  Rather than tight walk highfalutin language and tumble acrobatic use of prose for ya, I could come direct.

Sure, I want you to laugh.  I want you to think I’m witty.  I want to walk in the bar tonight, flashing my blog around, getting all the fine ladies in the house due to my presence on the interwebz.

However, and thanks to peers who have mentioned revising my writing before, my writing is about teaching and communicating to you, and not satisfying my writer ego.  Moreover, succinct words make more of an impact.

Aside from the jesting and stuntman wordplay above, all I really said was this:

“I read an article in the New York Times on gamification, the process of enticing consumers with a number of online entities such as games.”

Seriously, that’s what I get out of the first paragraph as far as useful information.

Sure, I may have made a person or two laugh, but there’s a time and place.  Needless language weakens thoughts conveyed through writing.

Don’t be weak.  Command attention and respect with your words.

Take a look at how easy it is to make your words and meanings tighter:

“I immensely enjoy reading Sean Revell’s blog.”

It’s true; I do, but I could leave the “immensely” out (that goes for most adverbs).  Besides, Sean gets enough compliments. 🙂

Holy scribbler britches, Batman.  The bell’s about to ring, and I must be going.

Don’t be sad.  I know you, writer, gonna miss me when I’m gone, but I’ll be back.

Pop Quiz! JK – Just a Review…this time

– Though we were traditionally taught to write in paragraphs with topic sentences, break this tradition on the web.  It makes for better reading.  Use a lot of white space.

–  Use an active voice.  You don’t want to be the kind of person who uses passive all the time.  It weakens your writing and conveyed thought.

–  Watch your phrasing.  Be direct and not indirect (see what I did..) with description. If you’re phrasing something as not something else, you are not being as clear and succinct as you can be.

– Which leads to the last point.  Put your words on a diet.  Shed text weight wherever possible, while maintaining meaning.  Less words does not mean a weaker prose.  In most cases, the strongest writers are the most succinct.


Readers, if you received two cents from the post, please spread awareness about this charity effort.  Every centiment makes a difference 🙂


  1. Reply
    Chris "Cameo" Dyson November 7, 2012

    I doth tip my hat in your direction, sir.

    Continually trying to up your writing game is difficult but it will only become better with practise.

    I remember my teacher in high school telling us to read more as it will help your writing & believe it or *not* it’s true.

    Reading the work of great writers improves your own writing.

    • Reply
      Anthony November 7, 2012

      thank you, “Cameo”

      you know that is doth appreciated much. (rings bell behind bar.) “read more as it will help your writing..” absolutely. I understand not everyone is a reader, but more reading makes for a better writer. you’r directly and indirectly learning how words are put together for several purposes. it is truly a unique form of communication, just like speaking, theater, sometimes I communicate strictly through dance after a few scotches and 1 am, but I digress..

      I remember reading an excerpt from Ben Jonson, pretty much saying what you convey above. He said his writing would be nothing without his contemporaries. I thought that was a keen and cool sentiment.

  2. Reply
    Patrick November 7, 2012

    You don’t half make a man think, Mr Pensabene. As marketers, most of what we do is try, evaluate, improve. Yet I bet I’m not the only one that hasn’t sat and evaluated my own writing as you do here. And I don’t doubt that there will be many opportunities to improve.

    What say you on writing in the way that you speak? I know that conversational English is different to written, but I often find myself re-reading my stuff as if I was saying it. It results, one may observe, in a drastic over-reliance on commas, which can, shall we say, annoy.

    • Reply
      Anthony November 7, 2012

      sometimes, I’m not on side, but on the fence about that first sentence. yes, we’re always reaching toward improvement. there is no true optimization. if there was, we would all have to create other ways to beguile our days. there will be plenty of opportunities for further improvement.

      sure. that’s interesting, and as you mentioned the bard, the pace at which one reads, or in acting one speaks, definitely is associated with structure and words chosen.

      one has to approach the piece as a writer, and then change hats, engaging as a reader. why two heads are better than one in these cases. it could be hard to get out of your immediate mindset as a writer to become a keen editor/reader imo.

  3. Reply
    David Cohen November 7, 2012

    David Ogilvy famously once said, “People that think well write well.” Ever since I read that quote from Ogilvy I’ve been on a pursuit to learn how to think well.

    So my question for you, Anthony, is if you agree with Ogilvy’s statement, any insights on ways we can “think well”?

    • Reply
      Anthony November 7, 2012

      haha.. well if you’re a witty blond with big..brains, you could marry me, “thinking well” by name. pensa=to think bene=good/well

      thanks for your read and participation, David. I can’t say i think well other than via “Pensabene,” but i do celebrate Chris’ comment on reading a lot. also, i enjoy people’s company much, which allows time for thinking and discussion. i was a bit shy as a younger man, and i think i missed opportunities to think better via the thoughts of others. just like Chris suggested reading more, i think engaging people more, also improves thinking and writing. 🙂

      • Reply
        Patrick November 7, 2012

        Surely also writing more, in itself, must help? Practice makes perfect and all that jazz.

        • Reply
          Anthony November 7, 2012

          i had a jazz teacher that was all that once, but that’s another story (closing credits role and corey hart theme-music plays)..

          definitely, dude, but I think some people don’t actually prefer that medium of communication, some dread it. i love it. if you must do it, be sure to drink your ovaltine and mind getting better.

    • Reply
      Joel November 7, 2012

      Thinking well means many things – thinking creatively, thinking critically and so on. For writing, I think critical thinking must be fostered; creativity seems to be more innate (though I’ve no doubt there are many ways to hone your creativity as well).

      I think more people fail on the critical elements of writing (what belongs? what should be said? what should be avoided? what is tactful? what is excessive?) than the creative ones.

      I think also, though, that the ability to step aside and put yourself in the shoes of a potential listener/reader lends itself to thinking well. How will what you are about to say or write be taken? “Empathy”, in this sense, is powerful. Knowing how things will be interpreted before you speak/write them is a little like being able to take the reigns of the discussion before the discussion has even begun.

      • Reply
        Anthony November 7, 2012

        awesome point about writing, Joel re “empathy” – I remember soooooo many people enjoyed the post you did about stealing clients. You really struck at the hearts of your target audience. aside from it being well written, you knew how to exact an approach..

  4. Reply
    Paul Gailey November 7, 2012

    I hereby delcare as a representative of the Saloon clientele of one, that serif adornment is gladly bestowed upon the quill holders of the aforementioned establishment. Such fine recommended specimens include Buenard or Vidaloka.

    • Reply
      Anthony November 7, 2012

      Sean and Pat had much ado regarding the interior design, as it is an admitted pastime of theirs. 🙂 I checked Buenard. I like. Thank you for the suggestions, and please come back, Paul.

  5. Reply
    Paul Gailey November 7, 2012

    Rest assured Anthony I shall return to marvel at the decor refit. Perhaps they serve Vidaloka at the bar?

  6. Reply
    Joel November 7, 2012

    Humbled by the shout out.

    To add something to the conversation: People forget that how they write is how they are perceived. A bad writer will be seen as unintelligent, incapable, lacking focus, lacking attention to detail. Spelling errors in things like client reports don’t just make the client think you’re a bad speller. They wonder if your inability to command the English language points to greater issues: inability to manage their work.

    For me, I’ve found in life that an ability to write can usurp other things and open doors. My ability to write got my erroneous bank problems fixed 30 days faster. My ability to write landed me job opportunities I never would have otherwise qualified for. My ability to write has garnered me an audience that would never have given me a second though (because let’s face it, I’m not a genius SEO and I’m the very furthest thing from a thought leader in the space).

    I made people laugh.
    I communicated what thoughts I did well.

    That is not self-congratulatory horn-tooting, that is my encouragement to others: LEARN TO WRITE. It will send you down paths you never expected or dreamed.

    • Reply
      Anthony November 7, 2012

      Thank you for adding, one of my humble heroes of the space.

      You are such an awesome example, dude. You love writing. Readers can tell. Readers enjoy the journey. They see you wrote something and look forward to reading it. That’s awesome, and I believe can’t be done by everyone, but the communicative endeavor could be optimized through respect of individual mediums at hand.

      I remember first struggling to communicate (verbally) as a teacher. On paper, I have more time to reflect and command my words. It doesn’t come as easy for others, but speaking does for some. I’m usually fighting off thoughts or trying to keep up with them. Writing allows me to catch up with them. Communicating my thoughts via speech is much harder for me.

      My purpose here was to call attention to the fact that to date, writing is the most leveraged means of online communication, and you’re right, whether it fair or not, people are impressed (non-horn-tooting sense of word) by one’s writing. We peddle search engine optimization.. well how about search engine communication optimization.. word, as you suggest, learn to write.

      Thanks for coming out for a drink, sir.

      • Reply
        Joel November 7, 2012

        Speech is a powerful one too; the ability to speak and the charisma you can draw from while doing so has made leaders out of people who never should have been leaders by any other merit (I’ll leave that one to you to dissect).

        Why I love writing is that I control the conversation. I can succinctly communicate everything I want to, exactly how I want to. It’s me, asking that supermodel out without stuttering on my words.

  7. Reply
    Joel November 7, 2012

    And in the greatest of ironies, I missed a keystroke in that comment, which I also didn’t proofread. I’ll be moseying off now.

    • Reply
      Patrick November 8, 2012

      Joel, I couldn’t agree with you more (wait, agreement in the Saloon?!) – I too have found an ability to write as a crucial tool in the workplace.

      Before I did any SEO I worked as the purchasing manager (for self-same company) and frequently had to negotiate better deals with suppliers or argue for discounts when jobs went wrong. Almost always I would take to email to construct my arguments, and very rarely did I fail in getting what I wanted. This is the part I love the most – weaving together strands of thought into a cohesive whole is a hugely satisfying experience.

  8. Reply

    HA! “undergo the experiment” into the Weird Science, bra-on-the-heads, retro-DowneyJr pic. smashing! well done, sir.

  9. Reply
    Hannah November 7, 2012

    Anthony I love this.

    I recently spent a week doing a writers workshop and met an awesome author who fought tooth and nail for his publisher (yeah books!) to give him white space. His name is John Aberdein – http://www.birlinn.co.uk/author/details/John-Aberdein-537/ and I’d thoroughly recommend you read his books. He’s doing exactly what you suggest offline.

    • Reply
      Anthony November 7, 2012

      Nice. Thanks, Hannah (hannah bo bannah..) 🙂

      That’s awesome. I heart when authors stick it to the man; I’m going to check J.A. out. Thanks for reading and adding, Hannah. To date, yours is still the coolest Twitter list I’m in. (sorry, readers)

  10. Reply
    Nick Eubanks November 7, 2012

    This. Is great. Many good insights and truly some valuable ideas to take into consideration – I for one, know that I need to get better at both phrasing and ‘trimming the fat’ from my sentences and paragraphs. It is something absolutely necessary to continuous improvement.

    I raise my glass of Johnny Walker Black rocks to you Sir.

    • Reply
      Anthony November 7, 2012

      Cheers, Nick. I raise multiple rounds of sake back to you, sir.

      I really appreciate that exchange with Garrett. It reminded me to keep showing up to the field every day to practice.

  11. Reply
    Lauren Sudworth November 9, 2012

    Interesting, but I found the comments much easier to read as they were written in PARAGRAPHS. Short Hemingwayesque sentences I think work sometimes, but there’s nothing wrong with a few commas and a bit of flow.

    OK, you do need white space, especially for emphasis.

    But it hurts my brain trying to read.

    Once sentence.

    At a time.

    • Reply
      Anthony November 9, 2012

      earnestly, you’d rather have hemingway sentences in paragraph form? bullocks! 🙂 i see what you mean, Lauren. my suggestion is not to be the rebellious kid in the back of the classroom of tradition, rather to get people to consider their medium platform.

      I like things spaced



      if the printed news or books were formed as such, such as in children’s books. it would be too thick in practicality, and would not be as attractive to the reader imo..

      thank you for adding..oh wait..i have another call.it’s you!

  12. Reply
    Lauren Sudworth November 9, 2012

    P.S Paragraphs act to group thoughts together, allowing for easily identifiable divisions of themes or topics. Having a break between each sentence means your thoughts just seem to float independent of one another, with no flow or easily identifiable relation.

    • Reply
      Anthony November 9, 2012

      i can’t deny your observance of tradition, Lauren 🙂 .. Understood, i guess in the same way you could use subheadings and h tags..

      “your thoughts just seem to float independent of one another, with no flow or easily identifiable relation.” .. well (blushing) not everyone can write like me… 🙂

    • Reply
      Anthony November 9, 2012

      p.s. Lauren, I DO appreciate your thoughts, read, and contribution, and do like to have a lil fun with visitors in the process. thank you again for coming to the Saloon. 🙂

      • Reply
        Patrick Hathaway November 10, 2012

        In some ways I agree with Lauren. I like forms and structures (not just in writing – in life as well), and familiar writing structures like paragraphs make me feel safe and cosy when reading. However sometimes it is good to NOT feel comfortable as it pushes your thoughts into new places.

        I do like the way you write Anthony, but if I wrote in short Hemingwayesque I fear I would look like…well, a dick. It works really well for you because you are different and helps define your style – and you sing a good song. I like to come and see you and listen for a while.

  13. Reply
    Iain November 12, 2012

    I have become aware during the process of surveying and considering this fine piece of contemporary writing that I do not, and by that I mean that I choose not to, disagree with the conclusions you have come to by way of your own, separate, process. I offer you my warmest, most sincere congratulations on the noteworthy accomplishment of having produced this instructive account of your experiences.

  14. Reply

    […] I Know You, Writer One of the best posts ever about how to write great copy that engages people. Tons of wisdom packed into this epic with multiple examples on how to do it right and how to screw things up. Essential reading for anyone who writes for the web. […]

  15. Reply

    […] Le problème numéro pour un texte numérique se rapporte au support. On a trop tendance à écrire comme pour la lecture sur papier et ça ne marche pas. Anthony Pensabene explique très bien la problématique dans Writing Better on the Web. […]

  16. Reply

    […] their FAQ page isn’t the prettiest I’ve ever seen. It’s also seriously lacking white space. I’d love to see them lay it out a little better, but the copy is […]

  17. Reply
    Felipe November 27, 2012

    What an extremely positive and inspiring article. I really am
    sincerely impressed by your posts. You come up
    with helpful information. Keep it up. Keep blogging.
    Really looking forward to going through your next offering.

    • Reply
      Anthony November 28, 2012

      Hey thank you for that, Felipe. I will keep it up. Sean and Patrick had me sign in blood through 2013 at least.. 🙂

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