Six years ago, when I started Opinionbypen, I had a goal to become a better writer. Somehow I assumed that the constant practice provided by weekly posts would miraculously improve my writing. That’s certainly not the first thing I’ve ever been wrong about.
Think about it this way. Suppose I want to become a boxer. I buy a few books. Oops, sorry forgot which era I’m in. Make that watch a few Youtube videos. I buy a punching bag and practice daily. I convince friends and family to be sparring partners. Do I really get better?
Okay, I will get better, just not good. Meanwhile, I’ll have learned all sorts of bad habits that will ensure a very short painful match should I ever step into a ring with a professionally trained boxer. Fortunately there are no end of people willing to teach me to be a better writer. Even my company is willing to provide training to improve my writing. Of course they want me to sign up for proposal writing (For some reason my company does not feel that improving my fiction writing is worthwhile).
After six years of this, I’ve come to the conclusion that I was completely wrong and that my company has wasted a lot of money teaching me to write better proposals. Why would I say that? It’s simple, I don’t believe my writing skills are the problem, it’s my listening skills that need help.
More and more I’ve come to realize it’s not how well I form my sentences, how many two dollar words I can sneak in, or even if I use spellcheck. The key to success is covering what your audience wants to hear. I can write a proposal with action captions on every page and graphics so compelling you’ll want to use them as screensavers but unless I cover the issues you want to see, no one ever finishes reading it.
Worse, I have only a limited amount of time to convince you that I have what you’re looking for. You’re not about to wade through pages of nonsense to find out if I covered the details important to you. As the writer, it’s my responsibility to give you what you’re looking for, before you quit reading.
Suppose I want a cardboard box designed for me. I specify the size and explain that I want the box to be a plain, unadorned brown. Following my company’s purchasing guidelines, I send proposals to three different companies asking for their price, delivery schedule and the lift capabilities of their machine.
Company A responds with 200 pages of incredible graphics and text, telling me that their engineers have been known to walk on water and leap over tall buildings in a single bound. Their final chapter gives a matrix of pricing options based on size and color. It’s a beautiful response. It also tells me they never bothered to read my request.
The response from company B is 100 pages of excellent prose and glowing adjectives. They keep their prices low by not having engineers. Their closest box is two inches larger than what I specified but for an additional $200 per box and a schedule delay of six months they can provide my size.
Company C gives me ten pages and only one picture, the box I want. In their response, they confirm what I requested and describe the modifications they will make to one of their standard boxes. The final sheet gives me price and delivery schedule for my box. They also provide a report on the bursting strength of their material. Although their meaning is clear, they managed to misuse “accept” and “except” as well as “to” and “too.”
Was I impressed by company A’s response? Maybe but given their rather generic response, it’s unlikely I’ll be buying from them. Was I put off by the grammar errors in Company C’s response? Probably not.
Well duh, how does this apply to writing blogs or fiction? People don’t read what you write because your language is so precise and your descriptions transport your readers through time and space. Don’t get me wrong, these are important skills and will get you critical acclaim but no readers.
People read what you write when you provide what they want. It seems obvious but it’s amazing how many of us miss this simple concept. Given that I have zero credibility in the field, nobody cares what I think about E=MC2 or the current state of our educational system.
On the other hand, as poorly written as it is, my most popular post is on Ramsay Hunt. People read this simply because they want any kind of information on this disease. Almost equally popular is my post on How to Argue with an Engineer. Apparently this is a challenging subject for most of you. Again, it’s the subject that sells it, not the quality of the writing.
Fiction is a little more difficult because our tastes vary. I’m not looking for clueless or invulnerable heroes. Nor am I looking for stories where the existence of the entire universe rests on the actions of a clueless nebbish. I want to read stories that will inspire, educate or make me think. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Despite what the critics would have us believe, it’s not the quality of our writing, it’s the quality of our story and how well we tell our story. J.K. Rowling understood that well. The critics panned her writing ability but nobody questioned her sales or her impact on our culture.
Good writing demands an understanding of what your audience wants. Anything less and you’re missing the point as well as disappointing the readers. If you want to become a better writer, start listening to your readers.Opinion by pen