What writing is worth our while?

WRITING IS A NERVE-WRACKING and enthralling endeavor. We put a great deal of ourselves into it. Sometimes we torture ourselves, or hope to liberate and comfort ourselves. But what about those whom we expect to read our writing? Writing is both an extremely personal experience and one that connects us to untold others. That connection is what it is really about. Indeed, from the reader’s perspective, we are too often frustrated by the author’s lack of consideration: the text may be too long, obscure, poorly sourced, too dry, disjointed, narcissistic and so on. So what makes a text worthwhile? Rest assured: it has more to do with the author’s intent than with his actual talent.

Here are some good questions to ask oneself before writing:

  • What is new about what I am about to write? What has already been written about this? What is the novel, real-life experience I can share through this piece?
  • Why is the topic I am touching upon important, meaningful to others? Why should they take the time to delve deeper into this?
  • Who exactly I am writing for, other than myself? Who do I want to address, inform, provoke even?
  • Finally, what impact am I aiming to have on my audience? Rather than attempt to impress them, what impression would I like to leave on them? In other words, what effect do I want to produce that is not related to me, but to the topic itself?

High-performing companies are said to be successful because they answer the questions “why are we doing what we do?,” “how do we do it?,” and “what are we doing?” in that order. Others do the reverse: they start by describing their product and their processes, before even starting to explain why it should matter to anyone. Powerful writing should likewise flow from that sense of purpose, connecting one’s desire to write to the audience’s desire to read. The “why” is the necessary starting point. Then writing consists in finding “how” to impact the audience accordingly. “What” refers only to the material that is being used to produce that effect – the framing, the research, the anecdotes, the characters, the references, the choice of words, and even the actual platform for publication.

Indeed, an effective “reading experience” depends on the reader’s ability to project into the text, to connect with it emotionally, to activate his imagination and capacity for empathy, and therefore to become part of it. That encounter is where the text takes life. As a result, the author’s “ego” must make space for the reader’s “ego.” One can write in the first person, tell stories about oneself, but the reader must be able to take over, engage his/her own senses, and become active in the narration.

This is important because we live in a textual environment where we are constantly assaulted by other people’s egos, which is especially true of social media, but not only. Nonetheless, the sheer density of the textual environment we live in suggests a widespread quest for content. The public seeks such content for a variety of reasons: to trigger, reinforce and stabilize existing emotions; for genuine light-entertainment; to be updated and stay on top of the news; or to edify oneself through publications that help to “make sense” of the world.

This last item is what concerns us. So how do we make sense? Telling a story or publishing information in an organized and analytical way is not quite enough. “Making sense” is a matter of speaking to the reader’s senses, of giving him or her a feel for what you describe, of conveying your own real-life experience in ways that makes it shareable as part of the reading experience mentioned above. Again, the reader shouldn’t be bumping constantly into you: he or she must be contemplating the scenery, engaging the characters, suggesting possibilities that weren’t originally planned. You may be there too, but as a self-effacing guide, not a diva.

Typically, we don’t write for one person though. We combine several audiences – colleagues who review, edit and hopefully improve our work, inquisitive family members and friends, people in the field to whom we are accountable, readers in policy-circles, students in international affairs, and so on. That takes us back to the kernel of universality that is needed for a substantive text to find and ideally fire up its audience. It must be deep enough for subject-matter experts to learn; explicit enough for novices to follow; both accurate and humane enough for the concerned to embrace rather than reject it. But those are the core components of a good text anyway – so writing for various publics is less of a constraint than a reminder to strike the right balance.

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Illustration credit: Eastman Johnson Reading boy by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.

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