Tag Archives: writing

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.

Get the name of the dog

Old-style picture of a news reporter at his typewriter

Yep, that’s me — more or less — circa 1978 (source: crayfisher.wordpress.com)

Take a moment and read this terrific article by Justin Willett, a content marketer who worked in a newsroom for 14 years. (The title, Get the Name of the Dog, harks back to a senior editor who advised reporters to get every possible detail for their stories.)

Willet explains how content creators — and I definitely count technical writers in this group — should think like reporters, especially in terms of honing these skills:

  • Interviewing
  • Research
  • Writing – both the inverted pyramid and the art of storytelling

Along with these skills Willett touches on others like attention to detail, critical thinking, and audience analysis. We need to know who we’re writing for, the context in which they’re reading, and why they’re reading.

Willet’s article resonates with me because I got my start in professional writing as a reporter, and because I’ve always thought that my journalistic experience prepared me extremely well for the career I ended up choosing.

Can you think of other reportorial skills that technical writers should master?

What skills did you develop in another field that have served you well in technical writing?

What’s Lurking in Your Content?

Fellow technical writers, admit it. You’ve all done it. You’re writing along, and you come to a spot where you need to insert place-holder text. Your creative juices are flowing, and a simple lorem ipsum just won’t do.

So you insert something clever. Lyrics from your favorite Stones song. Lines from the Dead Parrot sketch. Maybe even a rant about what a dopey product you’re describing.

Then you delete it forthwith. Because if you don’t, those little place-holders have a way of lurking unnoticed until one day they find their way into print.

Cover for the Hello Kitty Dictionary

Image source: mirror.co.uk

Don’t believe me? Check out this horrifying story of what a mother recently found in, of all things, the Hello Kitty Dictionary. At the entry for necklace were two definitions: a piece of jewelry, and a brutal method for killing people.

Improbable as it sounds, the story appears to be true: it was cited by a number of different online sources. Even if it’s a fake, it’s a good object lesson for all of us who publish content.

Reportedly the publisher, Harper Collins, reacted promptly by pulling all copies from the shelves and destroying them.

But I have to wonder: how did that ever make it to print in the first place?

About the author: Larry Kunz lives in an apartment on the ninety-ninth floor of his block. If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he’d be pushing up daisies.

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?

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What’s all the fuss about Grammar Day?

What’s all this fuss about national gamma rays?

Um, Emily, it’s Grammar Day. Not gamma ray. National Grammar Day.

National Grammar Day?Grammar Day - Twitter hashtag

Yes.

Oh, that’s very different. Grammar Day is important. Never mind.

Emily gets it: Grammar Day is important. Every March fourth (the date that, when pronounced, forms a complete sentence) lovers of our language march forth — celebrating that language and showing others how to enjoy it.

If it sounds like an occasion for professors, editors, and ink-stained scribblers to feel smug, you’re missing the point. It’s an occasion to spread the good word about good writing, and to have some fun doing it.

The “Be explicit” mug I won for composing the winning #GrammarDay haiku in 2012

Why good writing? You write in order to connect with other people. If your writing is clear — your usage precise, your words meaning exactly what they’re supposed to mean — you’ll make that connection. But if your writing is unclear, communication suffers — like it did for Emily — and the connection is weakened. Sometimes it’s completely broken.

So celebrate with me. Come see what’s happening at the National Grammar Day website. Be on hand when the winning #GrammarDay haiku is unveiled. And, who knows? You might pick up some writing tips that will help you connect with people.

(1 March 2017: Updated link to #GrammarDay haiku)