4 Ways to Avoid ‘Yuck!’

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The other day, I opened my front door to a headless bunny.

It was another present from DC, my cat, who was just sharing. Although I appreciate DC’s generosity, it really isn’t my thing.

It got me thinking about how writers may have the best intentions to share information, but how those intentions can go wrong.

In DC’s mind, she was doing great things. So how can a writer avoid the sometimes mistaken idea that what she writes is being well received? How can she avoid sharing with a cat’s attitude and getting “yuck” for her efforts?

Just because you think something is a great idea doesn’t mean everyone thinks it is. DC saw the bunny as a nice, juicy tidbit–a gourmet meal. Writers must avoid the “me”-centered attitude. It’s all about the audience, the readers. If their needs aren’t met, all the writing in the world can’t force them to accept the information.

Make sure you evoke the right emotion. DC was convinced I’d be really pleased and grateful. Those were not my initial emotions.  How can writers bring out the desired reaction? The first step is to determine exactly what we want our readers to feel. Is it longing? Is it satisfaction? Then we carefully choose the words that will create a mind picture that resonates with those emotions.

Let the writing “cook” awhile before presenting it. DC’s into fresh meat. Writers, on the other hand, need to put aside those first drafts to clear their minds. In the heat of writing, we are often too close to what we’re writing for an objective assessment. We need a little distance for effective revision.

Learn and move on. When I didn’t immediately gobble up DC’s little present, she didn’t let it go to waste. If we don’t get quite the reaction we expect from our writing, we should evaluate why, learn from it, and use that knowledge in the future.

Our best intentions—whether by a cat or a writer—sometimes don’t get the reactions we expect. For cats, the world always operates in feline fashion. Writers can’t afford that attitude. We have audiences to satisfy.

Who Cares About What We Write?

Writing AudienceWho cares?

Who cares about what we’re writing?

Answering this is essential when we write almost anything. It is the “who” – the audience – that will determine what and how we write.

“I write what I want people to know,” is the attitude many writers take.  How do we determine that’s what people want?

Very few readers, especially in the age of electronic media, have the time or patience to read anything that doesn’t immediately interest them or that includes information they don’t really need. As a result, we must look at who will care about what we write.

Ask the Questions

How do we go about doing that? The first thing is to consider some essential questions:

  • What does our audience already know?
  • What are the audience characteristics?
  • What does the audience need or want to get out of the information we’re giving them?
  • How might our audience use the information?
  • How can we package our content to meet the readers’ needs?

Paint a Picture

Answering these questions is important, but we need to start somewhere.  One thing that is helpful is to come up with a reader persona. Sit down and create a character to write for. For instance, it may be Sylvia who is a middle-aged, married, professional woman with teenaged children. Or it could be Jamal, a thirty-something owner of a small accounting firm in a medium-sized Midwestern city.

These two different characters will have different needs as well as background that we, as writers, need to keep in mind.

Mine the Internet

Getting background information on our potential readers is getting easier and easier because of the Internet. I have a business friend who has encouraged me to delve into GoggleAnalytics. It is positively fascinating some of the information I can mine from that!

There are other ways to get information. Go up on Twitter or Tumblr to find out what is trending. If you’re writing marketing copy, check out the business’s customer demographics. Business writers should determine if the readers are executives, employees, regulators, or customers. Fiction authors can cruise fan pages – theirs and other writers’.

Once we know who we’re writing for, it makes it much easier to come up with the what and how of our content. We’ll know how to package it to make it more attractive to our readers. That, in turn, will make our writing that much more successful.

Next week: Headlines Matter.

The Promises Writers Make

Spring brings possibilities and energy.germ_seedling_scion_225903

There’s an excitement about finally being able to open windows and let the fresh air in, about watching the leaves and buds from bulbs push up with the promise of future beauty.

A promise – that’s what we give our readers every time we write something. We promise them time with interesting characters in an enjoyable story. We promise to give them information they need. We promise that they could make their lives better with our product.

Just as we’re energized by spring’s promise of what is to come, our readers are energized by the promise we make. They want to read on. They want the result of what we offer.

As writers, we often get so caught up in writing what we want, that we forget the promise we have made to our readers. When we forget it, we lose the energy of our readers. Worse, we could lose their faith in our writing.

Here are some things to remember to keep those promises:

  • Recognize the promise made. If it is helpful information, make sure to provide it.
  • When we keep the readers’ needs in the forefront while we write, it is easier to fulfill that promise.
  • Taking time to organize writing instead of just winging it helps keep us on the right track to help readers.

When we follow through on our promise, we not only satisfy our readers, we energize ourselves as writers.

It’s like getting out into the garden for the first time in the spring. There’s a lot of hard work, but once we’re done, we feel good about what the future holds.

I Think; Therefore I Write

There is no doubt in my mind (and many other people’s, too) that good writing and critical thinking go hand in hand. In order to effectively get our message across in writing, we have to start with a base.

  • What is important?
  • To whom is it important?
  • Why is it important?
  • What does our audience need to know about this?
  • What is the most effective way to get the point across?
  • How will people use this information?

In order to answer these questions in our writing, we must investigate, sort, sift, organize, and present our information. We must decide what to include and what to leave out. We need to understand the needs of those receiving our message. If writing is becoming a lost art, is critical thinking far behind? About a year and a half ago, Mark James Miller wrote “Writing, thinking: A critical connection” for the Santa Maria Times. He pointed out that the highest rated ability employers are looking for is critical thinking. The good news is that critical thinking and writing skills can be taught; the bad news is that emphasis on teaching them is waning. It’s time to stand up for good thinking and good writing!

Literary Desserts for Non-Fiction Writing

Writers are always being told to show, not tell. A Writer’s Path author Ryan Lanz recently did a brilliant job of putting that phrase into perspective with his post “Showing vs. Telling.”

Although the post is geared toward fiction writers, non-fiction writers should take heed, too. Just because we write non-fiction doesn’t mean the writing has to be as antiseptic as a doctor’s examining room. In fact, it is a good thing for non-fiction writers to use this technique to connect with their readers. Besides, why should fiction writers have all the fun?

“Why should I do this?” you may ask.

Showing an idea through description and example connects our topic with the reader on a basic, emotional level. We often write to persuade a reader to take some sort of action. This connection can be powerful and boost our chances of readers doing what we want or changing their perspectives on a subject.

“Okay, but how do I ‘show’ in my non-fiction writing?”

Here’s an example:

Huddled with George under a tree in the isolated corner of Aunt Mary’s yard, Connie shivered with cold, excitement, and fear.

The match cracked and sizzled, illuminating George’s face as he brought it up to the end of a cigarette butt stolen from his mother’s ashtray. George took an expert puff and passed it over to Connie. Grinning, she took a puff then gagged. She felt so mature, just like her parents.

That one clandestine puff embroiled Connie in a lifelong struggle with nicotine addiction.

This scene can be used to introduce a piece discussing the difficulties smokers face when they try to quit or an article on how children are influenced by their elders when making the decision whether or not to start smoking.

It’s more fun for the writer as well as the reader to incorporate literary techniques in non-fiction writing. However, we still have to make sure we use these techniques appropriately. This type of example would not go over well in a scientific report on smoking trends in teenagers. The purpose of that type of writing would be to objectively present information, not to try to persuade or influence. It’s a different purpose for a different audience.

Nonfiction writing doesn’t have to be a dry biscuit. Throw some literary strawberries on it, and have some fun!

To Allude, or Not to Allude

Right now, I am reading Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery. I like Mr. Eco’s writing, but he is a tough read because he throws in so many literary allusions and foreign language (and Latin) phrases. I have to read him with a dictionary and search engine at hand.Shakespeare allusion

I’m willing to put in the work because I like his stuff. The problem is, I don’t want to work this hard all the time, which brings me to the subject of literary and social allusions.

I’m pretty well read, especially in classic literature, but I’m often faced with obscure allusions when I’m reading something I don’t want to spend too much time on. Then there are modern societal references that I just don’t get because I’m not in the mainstream of pop culture. (I am totally mystified by the whole Kardashian thing.)

When it comes to pleasure reading, missed allusions aren’t so important. However, we must make sure it doesn’t become a problem when we write to communicate ideas for work or school. We must understand our audience and make sure our ideas are clear.

This isn’t always easy. Sometimes I forget how young some of my students are, and I’ll refer to something that I think is recent history – like “Read my lips: no new taxes.” When I look out over the class, I see blank stares. Then I have to reboot my mind and find something more recent that my students are familiar with and can connect to – “Change we can believe in.”

In business, writers too often assume everyone will understand everything they write. They forget people don’t start out with the same background or knowledge base. We need to avoid the pitfalls of allusion and jargon to clearly communicate our ideas. In business, we don’t have the luxury of authors like Mr. Eco.

The thing most business readers have in common is the need for quick clarity. Allusions sometimes are barriers to this.

“Clarity is the thing…”

Note: Crime novelist P.D. James, creator of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, died yesterday at age 94. I am thankful for her wonderful books and characters.

How to Have Great Intercourse–Writing

Good writing is like good lovemaking. When you concentrate on your partner’s needs, you both experience more pleasure.

Writers often forget this reciprocal relationship. Many don’t take the time to501-Troilus-and-Criseyde-III-the-kiss-picture-and-frame-wallpaper-q75-267x200 construct their ideas in a way that meets the needs of the reader. They either don’t know how, or they don’t want to.

Wait, what were those words? “Time,” “reader”? Good writers, like good lovers, discover what “turns on” their audience. They match the ideas they need to express with the interests and concerns of the reader. The result is a perfect communication connection.

Somewhere along the way, someone decided it was of utmost importance for children to express what they were feeling through their writing. Things like grammar, spelling, or word use (not to mention organization) were just shackles for the “creative spirit.”

The result is a whole bunch of sender-centric writers. It’s “me, me, me – this is what I want to tell you. I can’t help it if you’re too stupid to figure it out.”

These writers don’t understand that grammar and organization are the structure of writing, the Kama Sutra of the writing world, as it were. They are selfish writers forgetting that, if no one can understand what they are saying, their message fails.

In good writing, the idea is supreme. The reader loses herself in the idea and is unencumbered by the mechanics of the writing. This is like making love where the mutual emotion of pleasure transcends the lovers’ actions.

Here are some things to keep in mind for successful communication:

  • Never forget it takes at least two to communicate.
  • Proper grammar and punctuation are subtle triggers that move the reader toward ideas.
  • Organization is the structure supporting the communication process.
  • Don’t rush the writing process or there will be incomplete communication.
  • The harder the writer works to make things easy for the reader, the more satisfied both will end up.

Selfish writers, like selfish lovers, are concerned only for themselves. They write in a way that may give them release, but makes their readers work too hard to get a hold on their meaning. They leave their audience unsatisfied and frustrated.

Good writers, like good lovers, keep their readers’ needs in mind while working to share their ideas. They delight in the pleasure successful communication gives.