Tag Archives: audience

John McPhee on writing for your reader

John McPhee writes in this week’s New Yorker about two essential skills for every nonfiction writer: knowing what to take out, and letting readers experience the story for themselves. For McPhee, the two are inextricably linked.

Because McPhee expresses his ideas far better than I could, I’ll use his words and then provide commentary.

Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material — that much and no more.

Photo of John McPhee

John McPhee (Source: Office of Communications, Princeton University)

Some of McPhee’s books and articles have grown much larger than he envisioned them initially, because as he dug deeper he found more and more that was interesting. Still, he says, before a story goes into final production there’s always something that would best be taken out.

He describes the bygone process of greening, in which a writer has to strike (using a green pencil) a certain number of lines from a finished magazine article so that it fits the space. He still teaches greening to his writing students. Sounds like a good idea for us technical writers as well.

Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out.

I like the idea that writing is a progression — from the starting point to the next thing, then to the next. Even though you’re writing nonfiction you’re still writing a story, and as the writer you get to decide how the story will go.

Since my background is in technical writing, I find myself wanting to argue that the “one criterion” shouldn’t be what interests me but should be what interests my reader. Yet I think I understand what McPhee is saying: As the one who’s doing the informing, I’m responsible for choosing what my reader will need or want. My reader can’t know, and I’m shirking my duty if I force them to choose the story.

I think this is true even in an “every page is page one” environment where my reader chooses what content to read, and in what order. Within each chunk of content — each topic — I still have to provide the narrative that will lead my reader to what they need.

To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape…a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images — such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost.

Get lost. In the end it’s about the reader. The writer should become invisible. I’m in complete accord with this: In fact I consider it to be the prime directive of technical writing.

What do you think? Leave a comment. Tell me if you enjoyed McPhee’s piece, and what you think of his ideas on brevity and on connecting with the reader.

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Are you ready for the future of content?

Guess what’s become a hot topic in the content strategy blogs? Good writing.

Brittany Huber laments that there’s so much bad writing out there, and offers some keys for finding the “really good stuff.” For Brittany, the good stuff is clear, scannable, accurate, and inventive.

Meanwhile Kathy Wagner sounds a call for well-written content, saying that good content engages, persuades, and just plain feels good. Kathy points out that “[a]udiences are typically affected in a positive way by one of two things: a truly compelling story, or well-crafted writing.”

quill penAs a writer I’m thrilled. This is right in my sweet spot. Despite what I’ve said about “good enough” being the new measure of quality, I’m delighted to hear content professionals reassure me that craftsmanship still has value.

So if everyone’s in favor of good writing, why aren’t there oceans and oceans of good content out there?

Continue reading

The technical writer as storyteller

A big pile of bananas

It’s a song about a fatal highway wreck. So why did concert audiences love “30 Thousand Pounds of Bananas“? Because Harry Chapin was such a good storyteller.

Storytelling is hot right now. The social-media and marketing gurus tell us that we reach our customers by telling stories: stories they want to hear, stories they relate to. Case in point, from just a couple of days ago:  Why Every Tech Company Needs an English Major. (I love the catchy title.)

But we reach our customers through more than just marketing. Can we technical communicators also apply the principles of storytelling? Continue reading

What is technical communication?

That’s a good question to start with.

The prime directive for technical communication: audience first.

Everything flows from that. As a technical communicator, my job is to deliver content without compromising its truthfulness or completeness.

I ought to write as if Yoda is perched on my shoulder: passing on knowledge and wisdom, and instilling confidence in my audience.

What is technical communication to you?

Note: As you might know, I blogged on the website for the company where I used to work. A couple of the links here are to posts where I develop each idea more fully.