“Write for humans” is garbage advice for SaaS blogging
Friday, November 17, 2023
Do you want your writing to garner reactions or respect? Because most of the writing advice du jour is all about the former.
“Yellow water hallway” as a description of the human Ureter is my second favorite thing about Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer (where he only uses the 1,000 most common English words to describe scientific concepts like the Large Hadron Collider).
What makes me even happier is that its gimmick is its thesis: You don’t have to (and sometimes shouldn’t) use big words to describe complicated subjects. Most of today’s keyword-driven SEO-optimized attention-grabbing A/B-tested blog articles do not have a thesis.
Instead, three-person SaaS teams are told to follow imprecise, unhelpful, and often inimical writing platitudes.
In Thing Explainer parlance, “write for humans” translates to “give people what they want.” “Be authoritative” means “pretend to know.” And “align your content with searcher intent” becomes “wait and reply rather than leading.”
If you want people to reference your article years after they read it, half-drunk at their high-school reunion, or on stage answering a question from the audience, you have to give them a single coherent thesis. It should be simple, worth debating, and argued with logic and passion.
Eisenhower’s thesis in his Chance for Peace speech was "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."
Stallman’s thesis in Free Software Is Even More Important Now was “If the users don't control the program, the program controls the users. With proprietary software, there is always some entity…that controls the program—and through it, exercises power over its users. A nonfree program is a yoke, an instrument of unjust power.”
Simple, worth debating, and argued with logic and passion. A How-To article, an app comparison, a What Is [Industry Buzzword] overview, hell, even a listicle can have a thesis that meets the minimum requirements. It’s just that those types of articles tend to have primary keywords, LSI keywords, and keyword difficulty scores long before they have a central argument or reason for readers to care.
Start with the thesis. Red-team it. Pick it apart. Share it before you expound on it. Make it airtight before you “write for humans” or “optimize for searcher intent.” Do that for a few months, and you’ll start to notice just how often published content lacks a coherent argument. And all of the truly interesting ideas that pop up in everyday places: in Slack messages, standup meetings, user stories, etc.
One of Stack Overflow’s Joel Spolsky’s most popular articles is 12 Steps to Better Code – a listicle from 2000! According to Ahrefs, it has 1.8 million backlinks. For reference, HubSpot’s How to Write a Blog Post has 4,600 backlinks. The main reason Spolsky’s article is so much more interesting than HubSpot’s, to me at least, is his main argument.
HubSpot’s intro declares “Blog posts help you boost brand awareness, credibility, conversions, and revenue. Most importantly, they can help you drive traffic to your website.” That’s how you target a bunch of keywords. Spolsky leads with “But, all else being equal, if you get these 12 things right, you’ll have a disciplined team that can consistently deliver.” That’s how you write a thesis for a listicle. It’s simple, worth debating, and he argues it with logic and passion.
In Think Again, Adam Grant talks about the fallacy of leaning on too many supporting arguments. It’s easy to take down the weakest one(s) and dismiss the whole case. Make one rock-solid point, though, and your interlocutors have only one option. One pathway to prove you wrong.
Breaching the Trust Thermocline Is the Biggest Hidden Risk in Business is a great example of the strength of thesis-driven essays. It defines the terms, makes the case, and provides examples. That’s it. Gareth Edwards almost surely didn’t set out to “write for humans”. He wrote to argue a point.
The great thing about a well-honed thesis is how easy it is to delegate. Tell someone to “write a detailed, authoritative, longform blog based on these keywords…” and who knows what you’ll get back. Likely something with no compelling reason to read it. Or worse, something with a thesis you totally disagree with.
I love Randall Munroe, but I’m not sure he’s the only one with the chops to have written Thing Explainer. The main idea had built-in constraints. Most good ones do. Another highly educated PhD with the same list of 1,000 words could have written it. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as funny. But the thesis would have likely been just as memorable.
Please don’t pick a CSV export before a thesis. That’s not the way to engage people’s thinking bags or touch their blood pushers.