(It takes about 10 minutes to read this post.)
As a writer you face two big questions:
· What should I say?
· How should I say it?
And workplace writers are further admonished to keep it simple (stupid): K.I.S.S. But how?
If you have a simple message—Be at the meeting at 2PM, Suite A—KISS is pretty easy. But as the message becomes more complex, the more complex it becomes to keep the message simple.
If you’re stuck, intimidated, frustrated, or confused by trying to figure out what you should say and how you should say it, all while keeping it simple, this blog post is for YOU! You should love to write about as much as you love to talk, right?
(1) You need to gain a little insight into how readers read.
(2) You need to understand how writing communicates.
Knowing these two things will help you take on any writing task with confidence, while being a good K.I.S.S.er…..
1. HOW DO READERS READ?
“Reading” is something we do all the time. In fact, all living things “read” all the time. We read each other’s faces and body language when we talk to each other, we read the road ahead when we’re driving, we read the tealeaves in our cup to divine the future. We’re all the time reading.
In this most general sense, reading means perceiving our immediate environment/situation, recognizing what it is, and assessing how much we should care. We do this all day long our whole waking lives.
Once we recognize something we should care about—something “concerning”— we discover all the meaning we can from the situation we’re reading. We do this so we can act appropriately, or inappropriately, maybe, if we feel like it.
To understand this “reading” process, imagine a ring made up of three arrows:
· RECOGNITION (what is this AND how much should I care?)-----> leads to
· DISCOVERY (what’s the “story” here?) -----> leads to
· ACTION (what should I do?) -----> leads to (more recognition)
We cycle through this process pretty much every second and even every micro-second.
When our readers read our documents—by which we mean texts, tweets, email, memos, reports, proposals, résumés, post cards, letters, posts on social media—they also cycle through this three-step process: recognize-discover-act, recognize- discover-act, recognize-discover-act….
Readers apply this process first at the highest level, and then, if they’re interested, they apply it to smaller and smaller parts of whatever they’re reading.
Thus the reader first looks at the whole DOCUMENT (we use this word, as in the previous paragraph, to refer to any body of writing, short or long, in print or on the screen). If the reader is initially interested, she proceeds to the beginning (the introduction in a document longer than a couple of paragraphs) and cycles through this three-step process. If she remains interested, she moves to the first section and goes through this cycle, then on to the subsections, to paragraphs, to sentences, to words…until she finishes reading or loses interest.
Said another way, the reader confronts a document holistically first, taking in the title, maybe a picture or graphic, perceives the length of the document, figures out what it’s about and why she should care (that is, read any further). The reader does this very quickly.
If the reader is interested, she goes deeper, moves to the smaller parts of the document, all the while reading words, deciphering sentences, wandering through paragraphs.
BUT, WHAT KEEPS THE READER READING?
Four things: the issue, the questions, the answers and the presentation.
There must be an ISSUE at the heart of the document that interests the reader. I define ISSUE as the area of shared interest between the reader and the writer—it’s why the reader is reading and why the writer is writing.
The writer must understand all the reader’s pertinent QUESTIONS about this ISSUE. Our interest is manifested in our questions. When we’re interested in something, we ask questions. When the writer responds to questions that reflect the reader’s interest in the ISSUE, the reader remains engaged.
The writer must provide useful ANSWERS to the reader in response to all those questions.
The writer must design a reading experience—a PRESENTATION—that makes all this information easy for the reader to understand and easy to navigate.
2) HOW DOES WRITING COMMUNICATE?
All human communication always involves a conversation, which is a formal or informal exchange of questions and answers.
ME: How was your weekend?
BRUCE: It was great, actually.
ME: Nice. What’ you do?
BRUCE: I took my kids whitewater rafting.
ME: Awesome. Where’d you go?
BRUCE: Mather Gorge on the Potomac over in Great Falls Park…..
You see what I mean? It’s true that sometimes a conversation seems to be two people trading comments (not questions), as in….
ME: My weekend was so boring.
BRUCE: Mine was actually pretty great.
ME: I just sat home and did chores.
BRUCE: I took my kids whitewater rafting.
ME: I’ve always wanted to try that.
BRUCE: Yeah, we went over to Mather Gorge on the Potomac up in Great Falls Park….
Underneath this conversation (series of comments) are underlying, assumed questions. I assume Bruce cares how I spent my weekend. I didn’t wait for him to ask me; I just unload the answer. If Bruce is interested in having that question addressed (how I spent MY weekend), he’ll listen and engage in the conversation.
Bruce is also assuming that I care about how he spent his weekend. Again, he didn’t wait for me to ask. He just supplies the answers that kind of parallel what I’m saying. But the deep structure of this exchange of information—this conversation—involves a loose string of assumed questions (How was your weekend? What did you do? Where did you go? Did you have fun? etc.) and their answers, which then spark other questions, until the conversation ends.
If someone is talking and you’re not asking questions from time to time, you’re getting a lecture. BEWARE!
To keep your writing simple, you need to appreciate this basic structure of human communication. Just as we’re always reading, we’re always asking questions: What’s going on? What’s up? What does this mean? What should I do? Why did that happen? It’s really endless….
HOW DO THESE TWO IDEAS HELP ME TO WRITE & KISS BETTER?
Readers are busy cycling through that three-part reading process: recognition, discovery, action. They are trying to figure out
· What is this and why should I care?
· What’s the “story”?
· What, if anything, do I (or someone else) need to do next?
Knowing this, writers already have the overall structure for any document:
· PART ONE: the beginning of the document, the introduction where I tell you two things: what’s the ISSUE (why and what I’m writing about and why you should care)—sometimes called THE HOOK—and a quick PREVIEW of the main questions I’ll be addressing about that ISSUE (also known as the main topics of discussion).
· PART TWO: the main body of the document where I address all the reader’s questions about the issue, including subsequent questions that are sparked by my answers as I proceed through all the information.
· PART THREE: the ending of the document, where I tell the reader what he or she or I or someone else must do next, if anything. If there’s nothing next, then the ending is often just a THANKS-FOR-YOUR-INTEREST kind of closing.
As a writer you need to figure out what you should say:
· Be sure you’re writing about an ISSUE your reader cares about. If your reader doesn’t know he should care, tell him, right up front. Create the HOOK.
· Be sure you let the reader know what questions you’ll be addressing about that interesting ISSUE with a short preview of questions/topics. Make a quick question outline.
· Keep your reader’s LEVEL OF INTEREST high by making sure you’re always addressing questions that matter to your reader.
· Give enough information to address those reader questions and any subsequent questions that your bigger answers spark. Writing well and keeping it simple is often a matter of knowing what to leave out!
As a writer you need to figure out how to say it:
· Use a clear visible structure that displays the logical structure of your document…don’t be shy about using headings throughout your documents to SHOW the reader where each major section and each sub-section begins. Use pictures and graphics when possible. Don’t be afraid to use bold type from time to time for emphasis.
· Try to present answers to the reader’s questions first, then explain, not the other way around. If you need to include a somewhat lengthy piece of background information, clearly label it as BACKGROUND, so the reader can opt in or opt out depending on her level of knowledge.
· Keep paragraphs relatively short. A paragraph of more than about 8 lines runs the risk of annoying a busy reader, and it embeds a lot of information in its big middle, thus de-emphasizing that information.
· Put the main point first in your paragraphs when possible…then explain.
· Use Plain English. No, don’t dumb the information down. Use the same register of language you’d use if you were talking face to face with that same person. You score no points with fake formality. You score points by presenting an ISSUE the reader cares about and addressing all her pertinent questions about that ISSUE as clearly and concisely as you can.
· Use SPELL-CHECK. Okay, I’ve said it. I’d prefer that you proofread a couple of times before you hit SEND. Little mistakes are inevitable in all but the simplest documents. Think of them as “spirit trails”—they let the bad spirits out and the good spirits in. They show our humanity. Maybe include at least one little error in every document you create so it doesn’t explode from perfection—which is often the enemy of THE GOOD.
Okay, this is a blog post—already way too long, I know. If you want more information on all this, read our book Mastering Workplace Writing or our forthcoming e-book Mindful Writing at Work. Or sign up for one of our CUIng Seminars (information forthcoming on those).
Above all, don’t panic when you have to write. Figuring out what you need to say and how you need to say it should be fun. Relax a little. It may take a few drafts. Rome wasn’t built in a day…as my Mom used to remind me. Thanks, MOM!
KISS every chance you get.