Yes we all make typos, but this post isn't about that. Spelling mistakes can cost you credibility, and there are more posts coming on proofreading tips and tricks but today...
my all time top three most costly, annoying, and writer egocentric mistakes that cause readers to fall off the twig by dropping asleep while they are reading- hey YOU... wake up!
MISTAKE #1 Writing to a group
Writers usually want to reach heaps and heaps of readers, so they tend to try to think about everyone when they sit down to write. I know I still make this beginner mistake. The problem here is like the old saying – you can’t please everyone. As soon as you try to reach a mass, a mix or a conglomerate, your ideas and message will become confused and even vague. You may end up pleasing no-one, which means that whoever you are aiming at won’t even read to the end of the paragraph, much less the sentence.
Writing to a group is hard. In fact it is almost impossible, because writing is a conversation. And we humans tend not to talk to large groups or conventions full of people on a daily basis. It’s not our preferred way of conversing. Of course writing a speech for an audience of two thousand may be what you are working on, but if so I would still give the same advice as I do for people writing a community newsletter.
SOLUTION #1 Write to one person
Yes, just like in a conversation, think about the person you are writing to and for in the singular. This is what professional writers, TV presenters and radio announcers do. Especially when they start out. They address themselves directly to one person and this helps them reach an easy, relaxed individual style. You may have noticed that some writers even address the reader directly in the text, knowing that only one set of eyes will be upon the words in the moment that the meaning is absorbed. Weird eh? Bit like time travel. So when Charlotte Bronte says, Reader, I married him. (Jane Eyre 1847) she’s talking to YOU. From back in the day.
MISTAKE #2 Writing what's important - to me
Of course what you are writing about is something you care about, or that matters to you as part of your work. And you want to communicate that. But have you ever received a letter from a service organisation that goes something like this:
We here at Phone Friendly are thrilled about our new initiative. After months of planning and strategic advice we have decided to put several innovative practices into the workplace that will give our company a decided edge in the marketplace.
Do you care? Of course not. I wouldn’t be surprised if you scanned straight past it to this paragraph as soon as you saw the word strategic. The people at Phone Friendly are probably thrilled with the initiative, but what has that got to do with their reader? It comes across like the person at a party who only wants to tell you about their latest Big Thing and how good they are at it. Dull. And irrelevant.
SOLUTION #2 Think about your reader
Sounds simple eh? Well, if it was everyone would be doing it, and I can assure you they are not. I have so many examples I can’t fit them in here, plus the times I have made this very mistake myself, getting carried away with my own magnificence. I have just written the introduction to my eBook for the fifth time, for example. It keeps getting simpler as I talk to more people who have to write as part of their work, but were never trained for that.
This one tip will save you so much time. Focus on the reader, who they are and what they care about, and put that first. Yes, FIRST. I don’t care what letter writing 101 told you about structuring, or how many great essays you wrote at school. This is Real Life.
This may also sound like that thing we often get told, that people are only interested in what’s in it for them (WIFM). My approach is slightly different because I believe people who are listening to your conversation have their own concerns, as we all do. And we as writers need to pay attention to them if we want to be read. So this comes, not from a marketing bias, but from a place of respect and curiosity about my reader. And yours.
MISTAKE #3 Thinking that writing is not like talking
Those of you who can walk into a crowded room where you know no one and be immersed in a fascinating conversation with a stranger ten minutes later will relate to this. Have you ever found yourself at the keyboard, paralysed with indecision about where to start and what to put first and if that is the right word for the job and whether to use a semi-colon or a dash? Even though you could easily tell a colleague or a client what is required in a phone call, writing and asking them to carry out some actions seems like a whole minefield of possible misunderstandings. Plus possible technical problems with paragraphs and punctuation.
We need to record conversations in writing for all kinds of reasons. And yes, misunderstandings abound. And, yes, writing is not exactly the same as talking. There are different conventions about slang and unfinished sentences and personal approaches that are fine in one and not the other. And the person who is listening/reading is not in the room with you, or on the screen so you can’t make the fine adjustments to your delivery that we make when we see micro-expressions and bodily reactions to our words. But even so.
SOLUTION #3 Writing is a conversation
I am not saying this is an eternal truth or anything, although it is based on some pretty hefty linguistic and philosophical research, which you are welcome to ask me about when I have more room to expound.
However, it is an approach that hundreds of people who have attended my courses have found very helpful and immediately applicable. It means you can translate what you know about spoken conversation to the page. And you already know a lot about spoken conversations. Thinking about how you might frame what you want to explain, ask or instruct in relation to a real person standing in front of you (see solution #1- ONE person) will help you get started. Then thinking about what matters to the person, your listener, your reader (see Solution #2) will help you keep you on track.
A conversation is anywhere there is a speaker and a listener.
Just like Charlotte, speaking to you across the centuries.
Gosh words are powerful.