The Art of Successful Writing


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It’s All About the Reader Experience

From as far back as my childhood days in elementary school, I clearly recall my fascination with words. Our teachers would speak with determined reference to the ways in which we needed to express on any number of levels through the many complexities of the English language.

Of course, in our very early elementary school teachings, those lessons were fairly simple in terms of what children that age could reasonably understand, absorb and apply both orally and in writing. Our preliminary task was to learn to speak the language and learn how to print, neatly and with deliberate and neat penmanship. Those words that we related to the most and were most often used in our day to day conversation were an early focus in class.

With each passing year, the importance of learning how to speak, read and write the English language became of greater importance, more and more complex. Grasping the spelling and meaning of each word was increasingly important, as was an understanding of just how complex the language really was. And then came the revelations of thesaurus content wherein lay a whole other dimension of the language through synonyms.

Well into the mid-secondary school period, we became more and more deeply engaged with the language through our studies. Written assignments became a routine part of our daily learning experience. Our teachers used the assignment process as a means to gauge our individual knowledge, understanding, and application of the language. I remember very early on feeling a sense of wonderment for the language, our language that was used in every conceivable aspect of people’s lives whether for personal reading, eventual writing as a profession, vocational requirement or creative endeavor.

Once into my secondary school years, I became increasingly aware of just how complex the English language was. We began to study not only advanced spelling of much more complex words and sentence structures but also a more in-depth study of the grammatical aspects of the language. This was pretty heavy stuff and for many, English Literature was tedious, boring, confusing and confounding. Many of my friends would question why we needed to know all that stuff, to begin with.

Well, when we eventually delved into the study of historical masters of the language, both structurally and creatively speaking, even more of the class began to wander their attentions to idle scribbling in their notebooks and banal daydreaming to while away the hours. Many would frequently check the big clock on the classroom wall, counting the minutes down to recess, a break from all of the mundane study sessions.

I look back on those days with a clear recollection of my own curiosity, no, fascination, with learning the English language, reading assignments and writing book reviews. The first time I held a novel in my hands was a milestone I will never forget. It was like diving into deep, darkened waters to unchartered depths of exploration and discovery for me. I kept those thoughts to myself because, quite frankly, kids in the day thought that anyone who was engrossed in reading studies was a ‘geek’, unusual to say the least.

Early into my high school days I began to have a sense that, even though I did not have a clear idea of what career direction I wanted to take, somehow I envisioned it having a lot to do with writing, communications, anything along those lines that would be an essential part of how I would make a living.

The study of poetry was for many an abstract, a nonsensical journey into waters that most students felt that they would never ply. What application could there possibly be through the use of poetic verse in our daily lives, right? Yet soon, I would develop an inspired thirst for the study of poetry. It led me to an appreciation for uniquely creative word, phrase and sentence composition that took a tremendous amount of focus to write effectively. Years later I would develop a lifelong passion for writing poetry.

I soon developed an even greater appreciation of how content development, in general, would form the basis, the foundation for more comprehensive writing applications that I would use throughout my entire career. My parents recognized my innate sense of excitement reading, especially fictional novels that I brought home from the library. One day mom brought home a box set of Hardy Boys mystery novels, hardbound and engagingly illustrated on the front cover.

I quickly became hooked on those Hardy Boy classics and read them repeatedly. My home library collection grew with each new publication and soon I would be into Nancy Drew mysteries and more. I would be fixated hour after hour, consumed by the gripping storylines, the suspense and wondering at the final outcome of each story, not wanting to put the books down when called for dinner. I would often read late into the night on weekends.

I loved the way the author developed his or her characters; their unique appearance and personalities, their voice, beliefs, interests, likes and dislikes, and their role in the story. And then there were the physical settings that surrounded individual scenes which rounded out the story. It all played out in my mind as a cinematic scene in a motion picture at the town theatre.

I recall punctuation being one of the more challenging elements of writing that I found difficult to grasp. I had an uncle who was a well-known journalist in both the newsprint and radio media. He was an artist and created the most incredible sketches with a graphite pencil that I have seen to this day. I began to read his newspaper articles, primarily editorial and sports columns but he later ventured in the most impassioned way into the political commentary and critique arena. He had a tremendous thirst for stirring things up and politics was just the thing. He struck out with a more unconventional and often controversial voice that had many readers incensed but truly got their attention and response. Those were my early lessons in reader engagement.

The more I read Uncle Gord’s columns, the keener my interest for writing became. I was fascinated about how he developed his storylines, how he captured interest and attention through the words he fashioned, how he painted a picture through every story told. The tremendous power and effectiveness of his word and phrase use and his very sentence composition was a marvel. I even fascinated at how each and every paragraph transitioned so fluidly to the next.

As a teenager, I was beginning to have a strong sense of where my career direction was meant to be. I decided to go on to college and study journalism. My interest and apparent strength lay in the printed media. I would work for newspapers, reporting stories from out in the field about any number of interesting subjects. I would interview important and learned people in order to establish and support my storylines.

While my passion for writing continued to grow during my college studies, the romance with journalistic reporting lost its shine, its polish for me and I did not pursue completion of those studies nor that vocation in life. Still, I would eventually forge on to management roles with a Crown Corporation that would be the beginnings of a life-long career in property and facility management. It was during those thirty years as a professional in the real estate management industry that I would apply extensive written communications on a daily basis.

Once I experienced the managerial roles in the real property industry, it was then that I quickly became aware of just how important effective written, and oral, communications would be in the course of my daily management and reporting of property operations to our clients. I was required to communicate in a clear, concise, informative and persuasive way, with clients from all walks of life. I would address property issues through all matter of supportive external service providers of daily or periodic services to our clients from trades-related contractors to architects, engineers, lawyers and industry professionals.

The strict rule of thumb within that Crown Corporation and all of the subsequent private sector firms that I was engaged by was to provide factually sound, informative and engaging communications and written reports to all clients and stakeholders. My accuracy and effective ‘voice’ through my written communications had to be delivered with the utmost clarity, consultative expertise and meticulous in its execution every single time documents were distributed from my desk. Critical decision processes were imminent from my communications.

Anticipating the extent of my focus on the written word moving forward after secondary school, I undertook to study intense, in-depth elective and college courses in English, grammar, and business management and communications as a precursor to my successive management years in a career that truly demanded exceptional oral and written communications skills. There would be absolutely no room for contextual error when it came to professional communications whether oral or written.

I learned the fundamentals of a storyline and communications development right from the opening sentence to set the voice and tone of the piece and what the reader could expect throughout its message, to the main body of the content delivery and final paragraphs that drew informative recommendations and conclusions. The content that I wrote was very often extensive in nature and complexity and was ultimately eight to ten or more pages in length. Even at that length, I was to cover a high volume of information and client recommendations in a clear and concise manner. Brevity to the point of confusion was never an option on the table. A lot was at stake if my message was somehow misconstrued.

The Art of Reader Engagement

The strength in communicating in an ‘engaging’ way goes far beyond mere logistics and factually informative report writing. In addition to writing highly informative content, the reader’s attention easily becomes distracted, especially the longer the overall length and depth of a piece is. Writing in a conversational voice becomes an essential element of reader engagement more now than ever before.

People’s time is harried; condensed into split seconds of engagement or distraction. Get to the point and give the reader what they are looking for and the sooner the better. Cut out superfluous content that would otherwise be characterized as ‘fluff’. Cut to the chase and make your point, especially from a content marketing perspective! What people will engage in is informative content that identifies the very problem they are experiencing and how best to go about fixing that problem, making their lives better, easier, more efficient, more cost-effective and enjoyable.

We often view ‘art’ as an ‘expression’, a unique and creative oral, written or painted/sculpted delivery of one’s thoughts or ideas whether spoken, on paper or online, even physically formed in an artful way that brings a pleasurable, inspired audio or visual experience to its audience. The beauty of any art form is strictly in the eye of the beholder…or is it? Is the perception of art by design for the divine graces of the beholder or is it mere aggrandization of its creator?

The art of reader engagement is all about the reader experience.

Today, when appealing to the emotions of your intended reading audience in writing, the critical element that delivers ties that bind is forming a connection with our readers through their emotional response to our content. Speak to your audience in a conversational tone…share with your readers through your own voice rather than second or third person.

When you relay a story as part of your message delivery, infuse the human touches that your audience can directly relate to. Consider a love story unfolding in your novel. What is the lighting like? Is it overpowering, glaring, unromantic or gently subdued? Are your characters yelling out to each other from separate rooms or are they close, but a movement’s touching away? How are they breathing? What are they gazing at? Are they resisting or embracing the imminent connection? What is the tone of their voice in conversation? Is it a matter of fact, suggestive, evocative?

How do we know we are making that important connection?

As writers, much of what we write is intuitive, off the cuff, instinctive progressions of ideas and circumstance which tend to lead the story where it is willed to go. It may follow our intended path of logical direction and flow but it also may weave its own directions between points A to B as would feel most natural under the circumstances.

We are a curious lot as creatives. We write as it feels good to ourselves. We develop a smug reliance on our instincts for brilliant situational development and resolution. Nancy is falling in love with Tom and that is how the story will end…right? Well, not necessarily. Writing as creatives, we hunger for what lies outside the box, the surprise element, a long way from what may seem logical.

In the literal sense, an artist will begin their project with very little or no sense of what they are about to create and allow the construction to go where it will. Here is what I, as a creative, experience when writing poetry or prose:

  • I first develop a conceptual idea for each piece.
  • As with a storyline, I envision a beginning, middle and an end.
  • I begin to write my piece from that concept.
  • I always have that ending in mind yet most often new ideas form in my mind and the piece takes on an entirely different direction and meaning.
  • I structure or shape my ending, my close, based on a new and fluid conclusion to the piece as it has progressed.

During its writing, I read back every word, every line, and every stanza repeatedly. Is its progression fluid, is it clear and engaging? With each new line, I read back again, always repeating that analytical process. I am incessantly reading back through the eyes of my readers, always. It is the reader experience that is paramount. Am I evoking an emotional response? Is it appealing and compelling for its intended audience or would it better be expressed another way?

I obsess on whether the reader is tearing up or grinning from ear to ear. Am I just being a coy and manipulative ass or am I producing something truly meaningful and never self-serving? Now, self-serving is a whole other matter to address and even though one’s content should never be overtly that, there is a quiet sense, as a writer, of the desired self-fulfillment, always. Still, my content always aims to resonate with its intended reader…without exception.

Content Revisions

Regardless of the genre or intended audience, whether a fictional novel, a university dissertation, business communication, content marketing or advertising copy, the primary objective is to write content that fully resonates with the reader. It has to echo, in other words, the reader should be able to relate personally to the content. It should invoke an emotional response. Editing or revision of content brings that content to its most clear and concise delivery while still delivering an enriching experience for the reader. The ambiguous becomes more clear, more appealing and a more natural progression toward the conclusion of the chapter or piece overall.

Revision fine-tunes, makes greater sense, hones in on specifics, filtering out redundancy, superfluous wording, laying bare a truer and more assuming path for the reader to walk along. When describing an action or reaction, use specific description to clearly explain a character’s train of thought to substantiate their response.

As you write, place yourself squarely in the shoes of the character in the moment. Each of their actions or reactions must emulate their personality under a particular circumstance and how that might change during other extenuating circumstances. It has to fit. If your reader does a quick about face there is an immediate and confusing disconnect. As the architect of the story, we need to always be acutely aware of the logical action and reaction that fits each situation and its participants.

In the writing process, if I have done my job you should be sensing the emotions of the characters and in response, you may well feel emotions of your own whether empathy or sadness, supportive or standoffish. In the course of reading, we experience our own sense of emotional responses, some that are powerful enough that our general response to similar circumstances in real life may change in kind. If we are going to interject an out-of-character response in the story we better resolve that displaced response with reasoning accordingly.

What does a creative writer do?

When I say ‘creative writer’ I am doing so from a fictional perspective as well as in the sense of written communications business to business or other specific targeted audience. We are ‘creatives’ in the sense of how we develop our content or copy. We develop the words and message for our intended audience and purpose, right?

We create or write and then were reread over and over again. Then we revise our content or copy through a series of tweaks as we examine our words, under the microscope, from every angle. Does it suit? Does it appeal? Does it invoke the intended response? Does it compel the reader’s own response and/or desired action? We must always read through the eyes of our audience.

We must always be mindful that each and every reader has their own personality, their own belief structure, their own likes, dislikes and reactions to what they see, what they hear and feel when they are reading. Our content should always compliment the reader’s intelligence and innate sensibilities, their potential personality, sense of humor and logic, wit and fancy.

Revisions are for the benefit of the reader and rightly so. Anticipate the changes being made during the editing process and how that might alter the reactions and responses of your readers in kind. Anticipate your readers’ perspective from various angles. As a writer, gauge your own responses as you read back your content and ask yourself how your varied and diverse readership would react in kind.

Build on your story through anticipation

Whether writing your first novel, business communication or advertising copy, it is essential that you write and revise through the anticipation of what it is your readers will be anticipating as they read progressively through your content and how they will react or respond. From a content marketing and advertising copy perspective, register a problem that you know your targeted audience is experiencing, build on the emotions being felt about that problem and show your audience how you can help them overcome that problem.

The approach to writing your novel is not dissimilar. Build a problem into a situation or scene, carefully anticipate your readers’ potential reactions or emotional responses and move the story or message forward with a most logical conclusion or solution to that particular problem.

Write with purpose and direction but the flexibility to allow for change

As writers, we fashion ourselves as conductors of an orchestra; flapping our arms and hands as directional overtures that guide our individual and collective musicians to act and react in response to the intended course of the composition score. As the music plays out in response to our direction, sometimes a wayward yet keenly enthusiastic and artistic soul among the collective throws in their own sense of musical prowess. As a conductor with an acute sense of hearing, you sense an errant series of notes, subtly off course yet curiously intriguing to be sure.

So you strike out for the cessation of sound as you awkwardly collect your thoughts. Then and without undue fuss request that the wayward musician replay that series of notes, audacity aside! Much to your astonishment, you, the masterful conductor, suddenly experience the unexpected; an alternate yet surprisingly pleasing and well-suited interjection of background accompaniment that works even better than the original score. What follows would be a rather furious recording of the new and preferred enhancement of the musical score, with a discreet nod to your ‘co-writer’ as subtle approval and signal to the collective to repeat the overture accordingly.

We must read back our work with an open and receptive mind to change.

Regardless of the source, our intuition becomes imperative in the moment. Trust your instincts, gauge your reader response and go with the subtle nuances of revision as the story or message progresses and as we read back repeatedly during the editing process.

It is the allowance for unexpected change that will shape and reshape our story or message in the most meaningful ways. As in life, we experience many twists and turns in the journey and must adapt to those changes which, for the most part, are positive. We can always alter our course when anticipated changes are not the most suitable to the storyline, message and solution conveyed.

Have you ever sat bolt upright in bed, shocked out of a dead sleep only to groggily awake to brilliant notions for a piece you are writing? Has it caused you to laugh out loud in the triumphant glory that such a critical idea would somehow startle you out of dream state, about your writing project no less, and render your storyline or copy superbly better conveyed? Well, I certainly have experienced that flash of unexpected light and regardless its origin it had me scrambling for the light switch and my pen and writing pad to get it down before the thought drifted in tatters out the open window!

Never take for granted the subtleties of revision on the winds of change. Some things were just meant to be!

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© Don MacIver 2017; All Rights Reserved

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