Lately, I’ve discovered that reading books to my daughter has taught me a lot about effective writing. A few takeaways are the importance of relating to readers, keeping language simple, and using predictable, repeating structures throughout articles.
Write About Relatable Topics
Authors who write books for children have to select their topics carefully. They need their subject matter to appeal to young children, but they also need topics that won’t bore parents to death. Robert Munsch’s book “Love You Forever” is one of the best examples I can think of.
In case you haven’t read it, the book details the love of a mother for her child even as he grows up and does things that drive her crazy. Your little bundle of joy will eventually enter the terrible twos. I’m not ready to think about my daughter becoming a teenager.
Throughout the book, the narrator returns to this refrain:
I’ll love you forever,
I’ll like you for always,
As long as I’m living
my baby you’ll be
While my young child doesn’t understand growing into a teenager, the idea of eternal love is obvious to her. She knows her parents love her very much. This part of the story rings true to her, even if she can’t grasp the idea that one day she won’t be young anymore.
Finding universal topics isn’t easy, but it’s something content marketers (and Medium writers) must do. Ideally, you can find a subject that appeals to diverse people, just like Munsch found a topic that appeals to children and adults.
In my experience, you start by thinking of something that interests you. Then, you take a step back and look at it from someone else’s perspective. Thinking about things from different perspectives is something that every writer needs to learn. Without this skill, you can’t decide which topics large numbers of people can relate to.
Keep Your Language Simple
Some of my favorite novelists construct long sentences with a lot of asides and caveats. If you’re going to write a great novel, go ahead and experiment.
If you want to write great marketing content, though, don’t turn to James Joyce for inspiration. You’ll just push most of your readers away.
Instead, try learning from a book like “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown. Brown keeps her language very simple, yet it explodes with precision and visual words. Check out the first five lines from her book:
In the great green room
There was a telephone
And a red ballon
And a picture of
The cow jumping over the moon
It’s easy to miss how elegant her writing is, but look at how much she has given us with fewer than two dozen words. When I read this to my daughter, I see every object Brown mentions. I can’t help but visualize the room, telephone, balloon and picture of the cow jumping over the moon. A longer, more complex sentence might give me more information, but I wouldn’t see the images so clearly.
As a writer, you might want to push yourself by arranging longer, complex sentences that show off your abilities. I get that, but marketing content is not the right place to show off. When you’re writing this type of material, you’re trying to reach the average consumer, not a niche group of readers interested in watching you perform grammatical gymnastics.
Consider that only 13 percent of Americans read at a proficient level. The majority (44 percent) read at an intermediate level; 29 percent read at a basic level; 4 percent read below the basic level.
If you’re really writing for the average person, then you should try to compose sentences that a fifth or sixth grader can understand.
Simple sentences are not easier to write. Cutting words and getting to the point is one of the biggest challenges that I face as a writer. These days, when I purposely work on my writing, I’m trying to simplify and choose my words carefully. A great amount of effort goes into writing sentences as simple and eloquent as Brown’s.
Repeat Sentence Structures and Patterns
I also noticed that the best children’s books use a lot of repetition. I already mentioned that Munsch returns to a refrain throughout “Love You Forever.” Brown doesn’t repeat specific words very often, but she does use rhyming words to create a predictable pattern in “Goodnight Moon.” These sentences get stuck in your head. I wake up some mornings with the words from the previous night running through my head. I can’t shake them because they’re so catchy.
Patterns can also make your writing more viral. If you want to learn how to write viral headlines and subheads, read more children’s books. They read almost like a pop song: verse, refrain, verse, bridge, refrain. The repetition makes it easy to read.
Structural predictability also works in content marketing. That’s one of the reasons that good editors encourage writers to create formulaic subheads. Repetition helps readers understand where they are in your article. It gives them a map so they can focus on what you’re telling them.
I still have a lot to learn about writing. It’s okay to fall short of our goals as long as we’re focused on improving. I think that all writers can hone their skills by reading more children’s books. For content marketers, they offer crucial lessons that will make your writing cleaner and more effective.