Most of us think of ourselves as fairly literate. And we are: we read, we write, we’re literate! But basic (and even advanced) literacy skills aren’t enough to put us on par with professional writers and editors.
Even in this age of free, open communication via the internet, language remains a complicated thing, and navigating it can take a bit of skill.
Not sure what we mean? Take a gander at this 10-minute video from RSA Animate (Steven Pinker, specifically). It’s called Language as a window into human nature.
In addition to being very smart (not to mention entertaining), this video makes a few distinctions that are absolutely worth noting if you’re interested in learning to write like a professional:
- Language works on multiple levels — e.g., literal (words that have a defined meaning), figurative (exaggerated or altered meaning of words) and implied (words that suggest a meaning) . When speaking to people, you can probably count on their ability to read between the lines and to make sense of what you’re saying on various levels. However, when working to optimize a website, for example, it’s best to stick to writing that’s literal, ensuring that the robot crawlers (a computer program that browses the web to create copy that a search engine can index) are able to understand what you mean; robot crawlers don’t yet understand nuance and sarcasm.
- In addition to being language experts, great writers and editors are experts on human perception. Not only do they know the right words to use, but they know how to use them to their best effect. They understand people and how language makes people feel. And that’s something that takes a lot skill practice as well as innate ability.
- Professional writers strive to avoid what Pinker calls “divergent understanding” and “ambiguity,” which (as he says in the video) can lead to awkwardness, without losing the interest, fun and even beauty that can come as a result of lovely language.
Professional-grade writing and editing are not easy. Do your best with the skills you’ve got and, when in doubt, stick to simple language. But if you can, consider hiring professional writers (or at least editors) to help your content say what you want it to say.