I had lunch today with a new client who was having trouble writing on his blog. He had no shortage of ideas and was good at explaining them person-to-person, but found that when he sat down to write, the results were dense, hard to follow, and inaccessible to people not very familiar with his field. He asked me for some tips to “slow down” his writing process — to make sure he was connecting the dots and taking readers with him.
I thought I’d share a few of my suggestions here — let me know if you find these helpful, and tell me about your favorite ways to add some breathing space to your writing!
1. Write a letter to your reader
Picture in your mind the kind of person you would like to read and understand your work. Now think about the people you know, and pick someone who fits your target reader profile. Don’t pick someone who already “gets” your ideas; pick someone who would potentially be interested but would need convincing. It might be your teenage nephew, a good friend, or someone you met professionally. My husband always writes with his parents in mind.
Once you’ve chosen someone, write your blog post/essay/book chapter as if it were a letter to that person. Start with “Dear X,” and write the letter you would write if you were trying to explain the topic of your writing to that person. You’ll find that you naturally take more care to connect the dots when you have your reader in mind as a real person. Once the draft is written, you can remove the opening and closing of the letter, and you’ll be left with a piece of writing that has been shaped by an awareness of the person on the other end.
2. Interview yourself
Once you’ve chosen a topic to write about, imagine that you were going to interview yourself on that topic. What questions would you ask yourself? Write them down — as many as you can think of. Then go back and answer the questions, one at a time. Write a sentence or a paragraph in response to each question. When you’re done, you can go back and remove the questions and connect your paragraphs together.
If you’re someone who thinks better out loud, you can also use this technique with a collaborator — a friend, colleague, or editor/writing coach. Have him or her ask you the questions, and record your answers. You can transcribe the audio to get the raw material for your draft, which you can then edit into written form.
3. Follow the boredom!
I must give credit for this one to my client, who remarked at one point that he always wants to write about the ideas that are new to him — the ones that are still taking shape and captivating his attention. He wants to write about the mountaintop, not the path up the mountain that led him there. However, these ideas are rarely the most accessible or easy to explain to a reader. The ideas that are so familiar he finds them boring are sometimes the ones that will be most interesting and helpful to his readers.
It struck me that this is true for many writers and experts, and it’s important that we don’t use our own level of interest and excitement as an indicator of what will be interesting and exciting to our readers. If we want to connect the dots and take readers with us, we will probably need to venture back into territory we’ve already traversed. If something seems boring to you, it may be an indicator that it’s one of those critical ideas that you’ve come to take for granted but your readers may not.