(This post takes about 5 minutes to read.)
Whether a piece of writing, from a tweet or text to an email or full-blown report, is itsy-bitsy or multitudinous, delivered electronically or in print, it must fork over useful information or it won’t be read.
(This, btw, is why we dislike most writing done in school—we call it “writing for teachers”—because it usually takes the USEFUL out of USEFUL INFORMATION. It’s written for a teacher or a phantom reader, not a real USER/READER.)
Therefore, we wish to change the conversation about “writing.” We’d like to start calling it CUIng—Clustering Useful Information.
Find out why writers should love their readers the way galaxies love their black holes….
Understand, “writing” is SO MUCH MORE than proper grammar and spelling. Many people we work with have no love for “writing” because they think of the writing they had to do in school, which was about a topic they cared little or nothing about and CORRECTED by a well-meaning teacher, who, dutifully, pointed out comma splices, passive voice, run-on sentences, dangling modifiers, disjointed nominative absolutes, etc., etc., etc.
As we’ve written multitudinous times already, real workplace writing, of any kind, is more about the content than the presentation. In fact, we claim, over and over again, that most workplace writing is 90% about the content and 10% about the presentation, the way a cargo ship is 90% about the content and 10% about the ship. But we ARE quick to admit that if that ship sinks, all the cargo is lost. So that 10% is REALLY important.
But, from the workplace reader’s point of view (that is, the “customer,” “co-worker,” or “client”), all that really matters is the CONTENT. We know workplace readers don't read like a teacher. They skim and scan, foraging for USEFUL information. They’re busy. They read with one finger poised over the DELETE key. If it’s not “interesting” (read: USEFUL), it’s not read.
For busy workplace readers, it would be better if the “presentation” were invisible and the content popped into their heads instantaneously. But the technology of Spock’s Vulcan Mind-Meld is still some years away. We must still rely on written words.
Instead of talking about “writing,” with all its unpleasant academic flashbacks, we think we can talk more productively about developing and presenting USEFUL, READABLE MESSAGES in print or electronically to busy readers (what used to be called “critical thinking” + “writing”) as CLUSTERING USEFUL INFORMATION—CUIng.
A report, for example, is a very big cluster of useful information. Each of its sections is a somewhat smaller cluster of useful information. Any paragraph is an even smaller cluster of useful information. A sentence is a smaller cluster still. And a particular word is a very small (but important) cluster of useful information.
Instead of “writing,” we should be thinking about assemblage. We develop useful clusters of information and arrange them in a way that best helps our reader find and understand the useful information they need.
All these clusters of useful information are organized around a reader question.
The bigger the cluster, the bigger the question being addressed.
We view any document (cluster of useful information) as a series of answers to questions the reader has about the issue that’s generating the need for communication. We define an issue as any area of shared interest between the reader and the “writer”—the one who must generate the USEFUL information and present it most helpfully.
Here’s a—cosmically farfetched—galactic analogy.
As it turns out, at the center of every galaxy is a super massive dark hole (SMDH) https://www.quora.com/Is-there-a-black-hole-at-the-center-of-every-galaxy.
A question is like a black hole, kind of. It sucks in all the light around it. The light is the information we need to convey to the reader/user who really needs it.
The reader’s questions, like black holes, allow galaxies of useful information to spin around them. We call these textual galaxies, documents…texts of some kind or another—like this very blog post. (Thanks for being my special SMDH. It’s my privilege to spin bits of useful light in your direction….)
I find the idea that the reader’s questions are the organizing principle spinning at the center of any written communication a very helpful concept. It should move workplace “writers” out of the world of “writing for teachers” (who are reading because they’re paid to grade) and into the world of providing users/readers with clusters of useful information (CUIng).
So how do you go about CLUSTERING USEFUL INFORMATION for your reader?
Our HOCs and LOCs approach shows you the way. You realize that any piece of written communication is made up of seven (at least) discrete but inter-dependent systems that affect both USEFULNESS and READABILITY.
HOCs (Higher Order Concerns) are
2. Organization (logical order)
3. Document Design (visible order)
LOCs (Lower Order Concerns) are what we think of as “style”:
6. word choices
(If you could pass any document through a prism, you’d see this SPECTRUM OF USEFULNESS AND READABILITY!) You could say the light (information) we see by is made up of these seven frequencies…..
Each has its own parts, dynamics, and concerns. Each must be managed well to the benefit of the reader/user. If any system fails, the document fizzles.
All our work over the past 30 years with workplace writers has been to show what these systems are and how to manage them, which we do in our textbook Mastering Workplace Writing and in our forthcoming book Mindful Writing at Work, and in our new day-long course The CUIng Seminar.
Most of my blog posts are dedicated to these CUIng-management principles. So have a look if you’re interested.
I’d love to hear your comments or questions. SMBHs make the world go ‘round. Readers’ Questions make documents go ‘round. Did somebody say LOVE your reader? Answer her questions!