Expressing through

Over the years of my career I had to communicate a lot in different contexts and tools through text. On more than one occasion I’ve heard my writing characterized as “great” (whatever that means), “entertaining” (🙂), “clear” (nice!) and “easy to navigate” (very nice!).

In the interest of promoting effective communication, I decided to write down the tricks I commonly use in my own writing, together with their strengths, weaknesses and common pitfalls. I can’t take credit for all of them, and there may be more widespread names for some of them that I just never heard myself. Feel free to contact me to suggest references or adjustments to this list!

For nearly all of the techniques listed here you can find usage examples on this very page, though not always in the respective section. This is both because I just use them all the time, but also to showcase how they sometimes fit so well that they aren’t even noticeable.

Language proficiency

Synonyms, idioms and other common language constructs can help better convey the meaning behind the message.

  • 👍 Gets the most “professional-looking” results
  • ⚠️ Requires a lot of effort to master
  • 👎 Unreliable in environments where the language isn’t known very well


Can add emotional tone when language is insufficient (all three sides may be to blame for this: the author, the reader and even the language 🤷‍♂️). Alternatively, can be used to add structure to otherwise plain-looking text, e. g. define skippable sections or prime the reader for information of particular kind (hint, warning, etc.).

  • 👍 Hard to misinterpret, unless the message overall is just incomplete
  • 👍 Aren’t subject to language barriers
  • ⚠️ People of particularly conservative views may view them as unprofessional
  • 👎 Older or exotic systems may not accept or display them properly

Rich text

Where supported, use it: emphasis can often be used to reflect what would otherwise be conveyed through changes in tone, monospace text can be used to highlight text that is meant to be exact, etc.

  • ⚠️ Not always available, or available but not very usable (bbcode)
  • 💡 If the field only supports text, look around to see if there’s formatting documentation
  • 💡 If it’s just not there using Markdown‘ish notation like *this* may still help


Can both add to the structure of the text and to its tone:

  • «Fancier» “quotes” can slighly change the perception of their contents compared to the usual ones or help with nesting quotes inside other quotes without hurting legibility (NB: typographers might want to hurt me for promoting such misuse of quoting styles, but it works)
  • Repeated similar responses can be substantiated with numbering in order to better acknowledge the other side or to highlight that the response doesn’t change in light of new details added (e. g. “Ok”, “Ok²”/”Ok[2]”) — because it’s both perceived slightly differently in tone and because it rules out the possibility of unintentionally sending the same message twice (which can happen with today’s user interfaces and technology underneath)
  • Parentheses are sometimes discouraged due to the optional nature of their contents: maybe their contents don’t need to be in the text at all (or be extracted into footnotes), but if they do, maybe parentheses aren’t necessary and their contents should be integrated into the text
  • Brackets of different kinds can be used in deeply structured texts when just parentheses can be difficult to pair with their counterparts (such as when nesting [like this])
  • Semicolons are so often forgotten “higher-level” alternatives to commas that allow separation of chunks that’s “heavier” than through commas but “lighter” than separating into different sentences

There are probably other creative ways of using punctuation as well.

  • 💡 For frequent use specialized keyboard layouts may be helpful
  • ⚠️ Typography or language nerds may object to “correctness” of these techniques
  • 👎 Older or more exotic systems might not accept uncommon characters like “—” or “²” and don’t always explain it

Inline lists

Can make a text easier to scan where multiple lines are not possible or desirable — in this case a normal multiline list can be substituted with inline marks indicating order like (1) and (2) or alternatives like (a) and (b); period-based marks like 1. and 2. are not recommended due to being much less visible.

  • 👍 In ongoing discussions inline marks may serve as convenient reference points: they’re easy to refer to and to find
  • 👍 Especially valuable where long single-line messages are expected (which shouldn’t happen, but does happen)


Can make any sufficiently long text much easier to scan, be it (a) to maintain a “mental cursor” when reading the whole thing, (b) when re-acquiring said “mental cursor” after a pause or (c) when looking for a specific part of the message.

Even when not available natively (e. g. in plain text inputs), leaving blank lines between what you’d call paragraphs also works well.

  • 👍 Very simple, highly effective, widely available

Third-person speech

Allows expression of responses that aren’t spoken and/or require substantially more words to explain, e. g. *shrugs* (see also illeism if you’re curious, though note that it’s not the same).

  • ⚠️ Usually looks awkward in a formal setting, reserve for informal writings and discussions

Cultural references

References to culture familiar to readers (quotes, memes, stickers) can dramatically shorten certain explanations by referring to works that evoke a similar feeling.

  • ⚠️ Be aware of whether the audience is familiar with the cultural works you’re referring to
  • 💡 There’s no shame in actually explaining the reference when there’s time
  • 💡 Don’t shy away from creating local cultural tropes or carrying them over from your background, as long as you do it responsibly
  • 💡 Custom emotes, where supported, are a terrific way to give tropes a readily accessible form

Tone indicators

Can be used to, well, indicate tone that could otherwise be expressed through voice. Most widely known is the use of /s to indicate sarcasm, but I would expect at least half of my readers to not have seen even that in the wild, let alone something like /j indicating a joking tone — both are guessable in a given context (when they’re present, they must have a purpose, right?) but not very reliably.

  • ⚠️ Not very common (yet), might have to be explained
  • 📝 See Wikipedia on the subject


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