If you learn to punch up your punctuation, proofreading, and paragraphs; spit-shine your sentences; and touch up your typing, you may feel better about your writing, but until you go up in your helicopter and get a panoramic view of what writing really is, your writing may not become much more efficient or effective….
The first step to good writing is mindfulness…not committing to the Zen practice of daily zazen—though that might not hurt—but following Ellen Langer’s key qualities of a mindful state:
1) create new categories,
2) be open to new information,
3) be aware of more than one perspective.
(check out Dr. Langer: http://www.onbeing.org/program/ellen-langer-science-of-mindlessness-and-mindfulness/6332)
The Helicopter’s-Eye-View of Writing
Way up here, looking at writing from our quiet, hovering helicopter, you can see that WRITING clearly involves three major characters: the writer, the reader, and the information they need to share.
This is where good writing begins: negotiating the space between the writer and the reader.
See how the writer is in a big bubble full of all the information she wants to get into her document, like a circle in a Venn diagram. See how the reader is also in a big bubble full of all the questions he has--stuff he wants to know--about the topic, like another circle in the same Venn diagram. Notice how angry the reader is when his circle is barely intersecting with the writer’s circle. Notice how happy the reader is when his circle overlaps the writer’s circle. True communication is a beautiful thing!
Notice how the reader is in a hurry, looking to turn a heap of data into a bit of useful information. Notice how the reader skims and scans, like a bee searching for pollen in a crowded garden. Notice what a visual activity reading is, how the reader seeks visual clues like pictures and headlines and call-out quotes. Notice how the reader skips ahead to the conclusion, so often buried deep at the end of the document, or notice how the reader finds a quick summary up front and then moves on to another document.
Understanding the reader’s needs is critical to good writing. Above all, the reader comes to the document with questions. Questions are the manifestation of his interest, after all.
IS THIS DOCUMENT WORTH MY TIME?
This is a huge question. It sits at the threshold of any reading experience. Notice how readers hit DELETE as soon as they decide the reading is not worth the effort. And notice how quickly readers make this decision.
Now look over at the writer, who’s standing on that little hill over there, surveying all the possible information she might capture in the little bubble of her document…listen to her muttering, “SO MUCH TO SAY! SO MUCH TO SAY! SO MUCH TO SAY!”
Notice how the writer so often seems to ignore the reader and his questions. Notice how the writer who, in school, never had to write to a real reader who actually needed the information and instead wrote to teachers, who read to grade—notice how this writer seems oblivious that the real reader is actually there, so hungry for answers. But notice how the writer is stuck wondering, “WHAT DO I WANT TO SAY?”
This is a perfect learning moment. Let’s get out the bullhorn and hover in our futuristic, noiseless helicopter right over this writer’s head.
US: What’s the problem?
Writer: Not sure what to put into my document? SO MUCH TO SAY!
US: Did you check with your reader? Did you ask him if he was interested in the ISSUE you’re writing about?
US: You are writing about an ISSUE, right?
Writer: What do you mean, an ISSUE? I just need to tell this person (these people) something…well, several things, actually.
US: But how do you know if he cares about what you want to tell him?
Writer: Well, he’s a reader, right? If I write it, he will come!
US: It doesn’t work that way. Your writing has to be ISSUE-driven.
Writer: What do you mean? What I need to tell him isn’t an “issue”….
US: An ISSUE is any area of SHARED INTEREST between you and your reader. It’s not necessarily good or bad, it’s just an interest that the two of you share.
Writer: OH. OK.
US: You need to start the writing process by understanding the ISSUE, and…by definition…the ISSUE will be something your reader is interested in.
Writer: What? I can’t hear you.
US: THE ISSUE HAS TO BE SOMETHING YOUR READER IS INTERESTED IN…SOMETHING HE CARES ABOUT…or he won't read.
Writer: Oh…right. Then what?
US: You need to look at that ISSUE like a math problem and FACTOR it into all the questions your reader has, or should have, about that ISSUE.
Writer: Ooo...I hate math! How do I do that?
US: You take a minute and think about it before you write!.........Imagine you were talking face-to-face…having a conversation. Imagine what he’d want to know first, then what, and then what…..write down all his questions about this issue.
Writer: He’d probably want to know why I’m bothering him!
US: Actually, you’re absolutely right. So you should begin there. Start by telling him why you’re bothering...writing...and why he should care.
Writer: OK…that makes sense.
US: But then tell him what main questions (topics) you’ll be talking about in the rest of the document so he can see if he’s interested and be prepared for what’s coming up.
US: PREVIEW YOUR MAIN TOPICS AT THE END OF YOUR INTRODUCTION…after you tell him why you’re writing and why he should care.
Writer: So you want me to start with a short introduction that ends with a preview of my main topics…I mean questions? OK. I can do that. Then what?
US: Every main question should be its own section (however long it needs to be) and you should use a heading as a strong visual aid…like a road sign…so the reader sees the main sections. You can make that heading a question—the reader’s question you’re answering—OR, you can make the heading the answer to the reader’s question. See how that looks. Remember, readers are busy. WE NEED TO DO ALL WE CAN TO LOWER THEIR LEVEL OF EFFORT WHEN THEY READ.
Writer: So, is that it?
US: Pretty much. You can end the document by telling the reader what he needs to do next, or what you will do next, or just congratulate him for getting all the way to the end of your document and really reading everything along the way.
….Then we buzz away in our noiseless helicopter….
What have we learned from our helicopter ride over the wondrous landscape of WRITING?
1) Readers are busy. Tell them up front what’s in it for them. Preview your main points, which should be tied to the reader’s questions about the ISSUE in question.
2) Reading is a very visual experience. Readers in a hurry appreciate road signs like PREVIEW LISTS and HEADINGS. They appreciate getting the main point first and then the explanation/discussion…not the other way around. Remember, readers are not your teachers!
3) Good writing is 90% about the content and only 10% about the presentation. That is, readers in a hurry, under pressure, distracted, reading with earphones, dreaming about what’s for lunch, care almost entirely about the CONTENT, what useful information you have to provide…and this information will always be in the form of answers to the reader’s questions about the ISSUE—the area of SHARED INTEREST between you (the writer) and your reader (the USER of the information). Reader’s don’t pay attention to the presentation unless it’s not working and they stumble over it!
4) At all times,
· SERVE YOUR READER'S NEEDS,
· KNOW AND ANSWER YOUR READER’S QUESTIONS,
· BE THE DISSEMINATOR OF VALUABLE, USEFUL INFORMATION!
This is what being a good writer is all about…being mindful! Got it? GOOD!