Great writing does at least one of four things.
It entertains, educates, informs or inspires readers.
A news story is informative because it tell the reader something important about a current event.
A tutorial is educational because it explains to readers how to accomplish a task.
A short story is entertaining because it gives the reader a place to which they can escape from their troubles.
A self-help book is inspirational because it shows readers how they can change their lives for the better.
If you want to learn how to write, decide if you want to entertain, inform, educate or inspire your reader. You don't have to achieve all four, but your writing should tick at least one of these boxes.
If you don't, your reader will lose interest and put your writing down. And for writers, that's never a good thing.
The good news is it's not as difficult as it sounds to give your readers what they want.
How to Inform Your Readers
Informing your readers means peppering your writing with research and facts that build credibility.
If you're writing for a publication, your editor will provide you with clear directions about what your writing should achieve and how you can give your readers what they want.
When I worked as a freelance journalist, I often received detailed briefs from editors explaining the topic I should cover, who I should interview and how long the piece should be.
Even if you're not working for an editor, consider yourself as a journalist who must examine a single topic with an unblinking gaze. As a journalist, you must be clear and level headed in your writing.
You must put some distance between your point of view and the facts. Informative writing means you'll be spending time interviewing experts and finding out facts and other pieces of information that your readers will be interested in.
How to Educate Your Readers
Educating your reader means adopting a personal and helpful tone. It's your job to put your hand around your reader's shoulder, and say ‘This isn't so hard to achieve, I can help you.'
Examples of educational writing include tutorials, step-by-step articles, how-to guides, and even this article.
You don't have to be an expert to educate your readers either.
Consider the curious case of the teenage maths student struggling with a difficult equation. Instead of asking the teacher for advice, he turns to his friend and asks him how to solve the equation.
In this case, the teenage maths student feels more comfortable asking his friend for advice because he can relate to his friend. He can relate to his friend because the two of them are at similar points along their learning journey.
You can use this principle to relate to your readers even if you're not an expert.
For example, in 2014 I ran the Dublin City marathon. It was my first marathon, and I'm not an expert at running or athletics and I would never profess to be.
However, I could draw on the mistakes I made while training for this marathon to write an article like: ‘Marathon Training Mistakes: 10 Lessons for Beginners'.
This beginner's article wouldn't interest serious runners, but I could relate to another beginner considering their first race.
If you are going to write an educational article that you want people to relate to:
- Use clear and simple instructions the reader can follow. If you’ve ever read the instruction manual for an old appliance, you will appreciate how frustrating ambiguous instructions are.
- Provide practical tips free of jargon or opinion. This way, the reader can learn from your knowledge and decide for themselves what to do next.
- Use metaphors the reader relates to. A metaphor is a clever way of relating a concept to an everyday object or action. For example, “Running a blog is a lot like servicing a car because…” or “Writing a book is a lot like laying bricks because…”
- Encourage the reader to persevere even when they feel like giving up. Remind the reader you were a beginner once too, and then show them what success looks like.
How to Inspire Your Readers
Inspiring readers is a different type of writing altogether. Often, this means drawing on personal stories and passions in your writing. It means invoking an emotion or change in your reader.
It means persuading them to take action and even pushing them over the edge if they don't.
To inspire your readers, consider what your readers should feel after they read your work or what they should take away from your writing.
Play on their fears and hopes.
Paint a version of hell that they should avoid or describe a vision of the future as you see it. Give your readers specific examples of how you can both move towards your version of heaven together.
The most famous example of inspirational writing is Martin Luther King's I have a Dream speech.
Here, King paints his dream” that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
How to Entertain Your Readers
Entertaining the reader means drawing on personal stories that only you can tell. Yes you can use humor, anecdotes, and clever wordplay, but story is king. It's the way we make sense of the world, and it's what people turn to when they want to escape from their problems.
Perhaps the best way to entertain your readers is to tell a captivating story. There are entire book about effective storytelling, and I recommend reading Story by Robert McKee.
If you to learn about story faster, one of the simplest and the best storytelling concepts is this six sentence fill-in-the-blanks template created by Pixar Studios.
Once upon a time there was…Every day…One day…Because of that…Because of that …Until finally …
Here's how this story-telling template works for the popular animated Pixar film Finding Nemo:
Once upon a time there was … a widowed fish, named Marlin, who was extremely protective of his only son, Nemo.
Every day … Marlin warned Nemo of the ocean’s dangers and implored him not to swim far away.
One day… in an act of defiance, Nemo ignores his father’s warnings and swims into the open water.
Because of that … he is captured by a diver and ends up in the fish tank of a dentist in Sydney.
Because of that … Marlin sets off on a journey to recover Nemo, enlisting the help of other sea creatures along the way.
Until finally … Marlin and Nemo find each other, reunite and learn that love depends on trust.
How about this?
Once upon a time there was a new writer who couldn't finish what they started. Every day, she tried to write but kept getting distracted.
One day, her editor boss fired her because she wasn't able to ship her work on time. Because of that the writer almost went broke.
Because of that, she taught herself how to find better paying freelance contracts and get more things done.
Until finally she made a habit of finishing what she started and got paid for her hard work.
Beginning With Your Readers in Mind
The writer who starts a project without knowing what they want to accomplish will find their work hard, slow and awkward.
Deciding the purpose of your work or beginning with the end in mind, before you put words onto the blank page, will give confines within which to write. It will give you a goal to write towards. It will help you finish what you started.
Remember, most readers are hungry for information and for a new perspective, a perspective that YOU have.
If you want to become a more productive writer, give it to them.
This is an edited extract from A Handbook for the Productive Writer: 33 Ways To Finish What You Started
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