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|Publisher:||New World Library|
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About the Author
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See the Big Picture
One reason so many people experience fear when they sit down to write is because they have not yet thought about who it is they are writing to or for. A letter to Grandma and a letter to the editor should not sound the same (unless Grandma happens to be the editor). Identifying the reader is a valuable action that can help people get over the first of many writing humps.
When you understand that you are writing for someone, you feel less alone with a piece of writing — even if the person who eventually reads what you have written is somehow intimidating, as with a teacher, a critic, or a potential employer. It is helpful in any case to realize that an actual person will be on the other end of this communication and that the job is either to inform, amuse, or persuade that person (or do all three concurrently).
So when I am writing to a customer-service representative at a motel chain about a shoddy experience I have had, I want to start out by visualizing that person. In reality, she may be someone who gets a lot of complaints but who tries to be truly responsive to them all. On the other hand, she may be someone who doesn't particularly value her work or pay much attention to what comes her way; she simply signs a form letter and encloses a coupon for a free breakfast the next time you happen to stay at the Last Resort.
Now, keep in mind that you won't know who that person is when you write your letter of complaint and you won't know how she functions in the world, but you can certainly create an ideal person — someone who is responsive, who listens, and who will act on your complaint. Creating such a prototype will inspire you to write more effectively rather than just spout and fume, which rarely does much good.
Whenever I discuss the issue of communication with writers, I can see how important and clarifying it is for them to visualize their reader. For instance, when my high-school students set out to write their college-admission essays, I ask them to imagine themselves sitting at a party next to somebody they do not know.
"How do you want that person to think of you as a communicator?" I ask them. "Do you think it wise to spout your achievements and try to impress that person with what you have accomplished? Or is it better to make a real interpersonal connection with that individual, so that he or she will be open to finding out more about you as you continue to communicate?"
The latter is always the right answer.
You can fall short on the communication front in a number of distinct ways — and it's altogether possible that your communication style could be afflicted by several of these shortcomings at the same time. Consider the following:
The insecure communicator is the mumbler who evades your eye as he swallows his words. He has little conviction in what he has to say, so he says it as quietly as possible, often trailing off so that he won't even be noticed.
The inconsiderate communicator does not keep her listener's needs in mind. She interrupts, does not pick up on cues, and can be strident.
The inappropriate communicator intrudes on the space that most people try to maintain in social intercourse. He talks too close to you, reveals too much about himself, and does not know when to stop talking.
The inaccessible communicator is aloof and comes across as cold. She doesn't connect with her listener, because she doesn't feel the need to make connections.
The inexact communicator says one thing and means another. He gets tripped up in his own discourse, and because he cannot be counted on to keep up his end of the conversation, an exchange with him often goes nowhere.
Communication can go awry between two people in other ways, but these cover quite a few problem areas — and the interesting thing is that these problems apply to written language just as much as to spoken language.
Recently, I worked with an autistic college applicant who was mainstreamed in his high school and did very well academically. He decided to write something about the stigmatizing condition with which he had been struggling all his life. I certainly agreed that something so central to his identity should be brought into his college application, and the personal statement seemed a good place to explore this subject. We worked together on an essay about his pet lizard, Phoebe, a leopard gecko that he loved more than anything else in the world.
I had never worked with anyone who had such significant autism before and found that his writing reflected his inability to gauge appropriate social distances. In that sense, he qualified as an "inappropriate communicator," but that problem was significantly mitigated by the fact that there was something so likable and earnest about this young man that his story promised to be quite moving.
So I cut. And cut. And cut. The drafts came in at four or five times longer than they were supposed to, and there was a definite feeling of his standing too close to me and saying too much. Torrents of emotion went on for pages, and it was evident that he had very little concept of how neurotypical people communicate their feelings. But, again, he had something to say, so ultimately he was able to bring the essay home. He wrote about the lizard's shedding of its skin and his own "shedding of the skin he was born with" in order to assume a persona that helped him function in the mainstream world.
When I first talked to him about this concept of communicating with his reader, I wasn't sure how far he could go with it, as the dynamic of interpersonal communication was essentially foreign to him. He understood, however, that this was something that could be learned — and, being the good student he was, he learned it.
Identifying Your Reader
Back in 1972, I graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a baccalaureate degree in English literature. I then decided to stay on for another year to earn a master's degree in a program called Writing Seminars. That year was significant for me, as it gave me some space and financial support as I developed my identity as a writer. Upon graduation, I went to work for a few years in publishing in New York City; since then, for the rest of my life, I have made my living, such as it has been in any given year, as a freelance writer. There have been full-time jobs here and there in the world of film, but those have just been drops in the bucket. As a freelance writer, I have learned to write in many different disciplines, so I could help support my family and generally survive in a tough world.
Earlier in my career, I did my best to earn my living by writing books. I always had a rich creative project going, such as a novel, and wrote quickie books on the side for money. The latter ranged from pseudonymous historical romances to pseudonymous young adult ghost stories. Whatever. If it helped to pay the bills, I wrote it. The logistics of depending on publishers' advances proved a nightmare, however, as I would sometimes have to wait months to get a check that was due me. So I realized, better late than never, that I needed a more secure way to earn a living.
My life changed when I became what is fancily called a "higher-education marketing communications consultant." That means that I wrote all kinds of materials for colleges and universities, from recruitment brochures to donor solicitations to departmental web pages. The very first thing I did when I sat down to work on a new project was to ask myself who my audience would be. Would it be a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old high school student thinking seriously about college for the first time? Would it be a parent about to send a child off to a very expensive university? Would it be a prospective graduate student? Would it be a recent alum, out in the workforce for ten years or less? Or would it be an older alum, well-heeled and well-cushioned, seated in the plush library of a stately home? When I had that potential reader clearly in mind, the writing could start. I wouldn't even think about outlining a piece until I had that face in front of me. Everything about the piece — the rhythm, the tone, the structure — would be influenced by that face.
You would be surprised how many people go into a writing situation without paying any attention to the important step of identifying the audience. A few years back, I went to a retirement luncheon for an anesthesiologist friend of mine let's call him Edward — who had been with his hospital for forty years. His fellow physician — let's call him Ralph delivered some remarks. (The names are fictitious to protect the innocent.) Now, it is understood that public speaking is agonizing for most people, but oral delivery wasn't Ralph's worst problem. In fact, he was clearly well-meaning and had a pleasant presence. The problem was that he was talking about Edward as if no one in the room knew him:
In the thirty years that Edward and I have worked together, I have always known him to be a responsible and conscientious professional who gives 100 percent to whatever he undertakes. Edward is organized, resourceful, and devotes painstaking attention to even the most minor details. Edward never disappoints. If he tells you he is going to do something, he will do it.
(This is verbatim, mind you. I was so struck by Ralph's remarks that I asked if I could get a copy, thinking I might be able to make use of them someday. Naturally, he was very flattered.) Ralph went on, addressing the guests as if they were a review panel, there to determine whether Edward was a good candidate for an open position, rather than as a room full of friends, family, and coworkers who had gathered to honor him and wish him well.
One of the best things insecure public speakers can do is to make eye contact with audience members one by one. That may be a bit hard to do with a large audience, in which case they'll want to pick out select members with whom to have that special eye contact, but I've taken that suggestion even further. When I do a book presentation for a small group — let's say twenty-five people or so — I will go over and introduce myself to people as they enter the room. This shocks and delights them, and before we're even out of the gate, we've connected.
Ralph should have kept that tip in mind when he was preparing his remarks. He should have visualized all who had gathered for this bittersweet event: the other partners, the support staff, the ex-patients, and Edward's family members. In doing so, he would have seen that there were real people in the room who had real connections to Edward, and surely he could have found some appealing anecdotes that would have attested to Edward's qualities — his resourcefulness, his conscientiousness, his attention to detail — without merely listing them like attributes in a letter of reference. He would have been able to concentrate on the human thread that should always be kept in mind when engaged in communication, the idea that someone — some one — will be reading or listening to what you have written.
To identify your reader, start by asking such questions as:
How concerned about the issue you're writing about?
How familiar with your material?
How interested in your material?
How much attention available to devote to you?
How set in his or her ways?
This is just a sampling of questions; there may be many more. You don't have to answer all of them, but by attempting to answer some, you will have a better chance of focusing your writing, and that will be helpful to you and to your audience.
Your Contract with the Reader
This agreement is made between the writer (the "Writer") and the reader (the "Reader").
WHEREAS the Writer is the sole owner and conveyor of the writing;
WHEREAS the Reader is the recipient of the writing;
NOW, THEREFORE, in consideration of the above and the mutual covenants, terms, conditions, and restrictions contained herein, the parties hereto declare and agree as follows ...
What you see above is politely referred to as "legal language," which you must be sure to avoid in your writing (unless you are in fact a lawyer). We will discuss the pitfalls of legal language later in the book when we focus on jargon, but for now just know that we want to avoid, at all costs, words like aforesaid, prior to, in the event of, terminate, and so on. There is actually some kind of movement (probably a mini movement) in the legal community to advance the cause of "plain-language legal writing," which means language that is clear and comprehensible to any reader. Wouldn't that be lovely? In any event, this is our moment to focus on something that is at least quasi-legalistic: the writer's contract with the reader.
Such a contract is implicit, not explicit. Obviously, when we finish a piece of writing and deliver it to the reader, we do not ask that person to sign on the dotted line, absolving us for any mistakes we may have made. We do not require the reader to read the entirety of what has been delivered, nor do we demand that he or she somehow demonstrate an understanding of what has been read. When it comes to the implicit contract, however, there is much at stake.
The burden of responsibility in this contract falls primarily on you, the writer, rather than on the reader. You have no control over the reader, so there's not all that much you can ask of the reader. You can hope that he will devote attention to what you've written, but if the reader's bathtub overflows, the reality is that his attention will be diverted and for who knows how long. The good news, however, is that if you provide your reader with something sufficiently captivating, he will gladly give you his attention. Very few people manage to fall asleep while reading Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum," J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, or Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City.
When you consider your contract with the reader, it's best to approach it as a kind of "Bill of Rights" assuring the reader that your writing will have certain basic qualities. Let's think of these qualities as the six Cs:
1. Clarity. Everything in your piece should be as clear as can be. That doesn't mean you have to completely forgo ambiguity, which can be a powerful tool in certain kinds of writing, but it does mean that, sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph, you should strive to be as clear as possible. Ambiguity only works if you understand the point of your own writing. Ambiguity is not synonymous with confusion.
2. Conciseness. Generally speaking, readers are stingy with their time. Everyone has a lot to do these days, and when a reader is given something to read, the implicit understanding — that is, the implicit contract — stipulates that the Writer (you) will not waste the Reader's time. In other words, fewer words. Fewer adjectives, fewer adverbs, fewer metaphors, and more clean, muscular prose. And keep in mind that faulty punctuation also takes up the reader's time — what is that comma doing there? — which is why everything must be pored over carefully.
3. Construction. It is no real stretch to compare a piece of writing to a piece of cabinetry. Both demand a high level of functionality, an appreciation for aesthetics, a good finish, and clean lines. Those clean lines are part of your contract with the reader. We can't expect a reader to jump all over the place, trying to keep pace with the random shifts of the writer's thought processes. When you are telling a story — which oftentimes you are, even if what you are writing doesn't seem like a story — then you must be aware that what is going on in your mind is not necessarily being conveyed to your reader. If you start out in one location in the first paragraph and wind up in another location in the second paragraph, the reader will want to know how you got there. That's called "tracking" — and it's a writing issue that many writers tend to ignore.
4. Color. You, the writer, must do your best to create a piece of writing that feels vivid and fully drawn. Bland, colorless writing goes down like cold porridge, while overcooked writing, screaming with verbal sound effects, is as hard to swallow as Sriracha on four-alarm chili. Finding a palette that works for you (and this needn't be and probably shouldn't be the same palette for everything you write) will play an important role in determining if your writing is successful. You have many colored pencils in your box. The key is to find which ones work for you — an issue we will be taking up in detail as we go forward.
5. Courtesy. DO YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN BY COURTESY? If you're familiar with email courtesy, then you know that the sentence I just wrote, entirely in capital letters, is called "shouting." People don't like to be shouted at — it feels discourteous — and so an email in all caps is a no-no. Think about ways that you, the writer, might be discourteous to your reader. Persuasive writing, for example, should not be peppered with exclamation points as you try to make your points. (E.g., "Dear Sir or Madam, I was infuriated to discover that the squeegee I ordered from you did not work! I would have expected more, given your Amazon reviews!") Sarcasm, snarky comments, arch expressions, especially those in a foreign language (Comme ça!), are all ways to alienate the reader — and an alienated reader is tremendously difficult to reel back in. Remember, readers can find many other things to do with their time instead of reading what you have written.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Seven Steps to Confident Writing"
Copyright © 2019 Alan Gelb.
Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Seven Steps to Confident Writing
STEP ONE: See the Big Picture
STEP TWO: Be Prepared
STEP THREE: Tell Stories
STEP FOUR: Revel in the Amazing, Expandable, Elastic, Evolving Sentence
STEP FIVE: Work Draft to Draft
STEP SIX: Watch Your Tone
STEP SEVEN: Do the Lapidary Work