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Keep and Reward Your Reader

Posted on Sunday, June 29, 2014 at 10:42 PM

There are obligations that you must consider.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Here are more lessons from that recent lecture of mine, addressed to attendees at a conference for writers. Last month, I discussed the need for conviction, creativity, and courage; the importance of judiciously using time, so we don't waste our own or that of the reader; and the writer's requirement to win the reader.

To win the reader is but part of our total obligation. We must also keep the reader and reward the reader. Of these, I speak to you now.

The late language maven James Kilpatrick told us: "The first secret of good writing: We must look intently, and hear intently, and taste intently ... we must look at everything very hard. Is it the task at hand to describe a snowfall? Very well. We begin by observing that the snow is white. Is it white as bond paper? White as whipped cream? Is the snow daisy white, or egg-white white, or whitewash white? Let us look very hard. We will see that snow comes in different textures. The light snow that looks like powdered sugar is not the heavy snow that clings like wet cotton. When we write matter-of-factly that Last night it snowed and this morning the fields were white, we have not looked intently. Out of this intensity of observation, we derive two important gains. We learn to write precisely, and we fill our storehouse with the images that one day we will fashion into similes and metaphors."

Second Obligation -- Keep the Reader

A whole lot of MUSTS come into play as we strive to hold our reader.

MUST Number 1

There is structure: how to put your manuscript together, in what method, in what order, in what manner. Have you a plan, a blueprint for what you're about to build? To keep interest, to sustain interest, to engage rather than confuse and estrange the reader, you must most carefully consider the design, the architecture of your written package. The written words must spread into a reasoned whole, one that makes sense, is easy to follow, and a pleasure to traverse. Take time to plan your house of words. In the end, that will save you time.

MUST Number 2

There are editorial givens a reader expects, the writer's A-B-Cs.

A -- Accuracy: the greatest of care that everything you say is without factual or inferential or lingual error, that your copy can be believed and trusted.

B -- Brevity: the acceptance that you don't waste space because a waste of space means weaker copy as well as a waste of the reader's time. Say what needs to be said, and do it efficiently.

C -- Clarity: without it, you are lost; nothing matters more than writing that is written to be understood.

An added C -- Completeness: give the reader what he or she needs to understand the subject or the plot. Don't overload your creation with more than your subject requires or more than the reader would need for grasp or want for satisfaction, but be generous and be careful that you haven't left essential material out. Give the reader the feel of something whole.

MUST Number 3

Flow. Make your words an unbroken, follow-able stream of narrative or informative thrust. At all points, let your readers know where they are, where they've been, where they seem to be going. If you toy with linearity, if for some reason you must move back and forth or zigzag sideways, let your readers in on the game.

MUST Number 4

Substance. What have you to present to the reader besides a verbal skill that merely offers frill? Pretty or clever language alone is not sufficient to gain a reader's loyalty. You need to have gathered and used substance for that reader to engage in, essence, matter. There has to be a "what" and a "who" in your copy. There probably also should be a "why." In total, is there sustenance for the heart and mind, food for the reader's sense, and/or food for the reader's brain?

An ordered structure, accuracy, brevity, clarity, completeness, flow, substance for feeling, and contemplation: these are MUSTS, essentials in your effort: obligation one, to win your reader, and, obligation two, to keep him or her.

Third Obligation -- Reward

Your third obligation as writer, remember, is to reward your reader, to leave the reader, your customer, your client, enriched, feeling vindicated for having chosen to spend time with you.

All that I've already spoken of is required for the reader to be rewarded. But there's something else, too, and that's the ability of an author to connect with the reader, this by expressing his or her own personality through language and content and method. This uniqueness of expression is called style or voice.

Style and Voice

In the best of entertainment and art, we can locate it and relish the experience. I don't know if the words are interchangeable, but veteran authors John Updike and Susan Orlean suggest they are.

Updike prefers STYLE and defines it as "nothing less than the writer's habits of mind. It is not a kind of paint applied afterwards, but the very germ of the thing.... Just as one's handwriting tends to come out the same every time, with certain quirks of emphasis and flow, so does one's writing, with its recurrent pet vocabulary and concerns."

Orlean prefers VOICE, arguing that, "As the word tells us," it's "the way a writer talks. You are speaking to your readers. Sometimes we think we have to come up with something clever, but cleverness for its own sake is rarely powerful.... The way you tell a story over dinner is true to who you are."

I'll avoid the debate and accept interchangeability, proposing that both words can define INDIVIDUALITY, which can and should manifest itself in your manuscript in up to three critical ways:

First, you as writer should strive for a personal voice, what both Updike and Orlean were referring to: gaining the ability to put the YOU in your copy, using the language inimitably, distinctively, personably, recognizably, indeed out of the habits of your mind, as Updike explained, indeed the way you talk, as Orlean did.

Second, your characters -- the ones you make up for fiction or the ones you take from reality for nonfiction -- require personalities; they must become individuals through the way you give them life in looks, action, and speech. Each should be distinguishable from the others in springing from the page.

Third, the context you put your actors in, the recreated world, the aura, the milieu must assume an individuality to ring true. Give style/voice/individuality to where and how things happen. Make the atmosphere and biosphere of your article believable.

As reader, I want your writing to not allow me to forget. I want you, through persuasive copy, to force me to remember.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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