Moving Your Writing from “Wha?” to “Wow!”

“Where have they gone? I must find them, for I am their leader.”
- Poster on the wall of the best boss I have ever had

April 8, 2016 – The most frequent and powerful edits I find myself making in the “tweaking” phase of writing is in what might be called “leadership.” Say I have already written what I wanted to say; now I am editing to make my ideas accessible to my audience. As in any leadership or teaching role, it is important to start where your readership is.

For example, if you are teaching someone how to find the area of a circle, it isn’t helpful to tell them to use the formula  A = πr2  if they don’t know what area means, have never heard of radius, have no idea what the symbols in the formula are, and are completely stumped on the idea of doing math with letters! This may seem obvious, but all too often we are so comfortable with our language and level of knowledge we forget our readers may not be starting in the same place we are. We can write the most eloquent piece on powerful shamanic healing practices, only to have the reader reach the end saying, “Okay, but what is shamanism again?”

Most often I find these edits are necessary in the introduction to a piece, but they can come up throughout a document whenever a new concept or topic is introduced. Three elements to look at to keep your reader comfortably on board with you are:

  1. setting an expectation,
  2. defining your terms, and
  3. moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar to the unexpected!

And it is always nice to complete the circle by ending with a reference to the starting place, which reminds the reader of the journey just taken.

Setting an expectation simply means giving the reader a heads-up on where the book is really going, and possibly cluing them in on whether your book is really what they are looking for. Setting an expectation can take many forms. It can be an explicit guidepost to the level of difficulty of the material or an outline of the steps the book will take the reader through; it can be an introduction to the focus of the book; or it can be a teaser to arouse the reader’s curiosity. However it is crafted, the idea is to alert the reader in some way as to what is ahead.

Defining your terms is fairly obvious in the example of the math formula, but more broadly it means developing a common language. It means finding ways to incorporate a brief definition, or reminder, of terms and concepts you will be using. Then you can freely use those terms and concepts through the rest of the book. It may require a back story, such as relating journeying, for example, to “waking dreams,” which the reader will understand. As another example, it may require describing a “bistro” if your readers may not know or be tuned in to a subtlety that particular environment always evokes for you. Every situation is different. The point is to be sensitive to the specific language and understandings you work with every day and know your readership may include some newbies.

By far the most fun part of leadership by writing is taking your reader from the familiar to the unfamiliar to the unexpected. To jump straight to the unexpected is to get a “WTF?!” To start with the unfamiliar (from the reader’s point of view) is to get a “Wha?” But to start with the familiar and take them by the hand is to get a “Wow!” in the end.

Take quantum mechanics, for example... please. We can start with classical physics, which is generally familiar, move to how the rules change at the tiny, quantum level of matter and energy, then move again to the startling findings and implications of the new understanding. Wow! Even if the reader doesn’t get every detail, they come away with the sense of the flow and the underpinnings of the ending place connected to the familiar. This same process applies to any journey, through any topic, story, or experience.

You have to start where the readers are and bring them into your world, or in the end the only one “wowing” will be you.

Happy Writing!

*photos © Art Held