Since audiences seem to like step-by-step guides, I’ll start with the two basic rules of writing:
- Know what you want to say. Be able to sum up your main message, your thesis statement, in one clear sentence.
- Know your audience. Know whom you’re writing or speaking to. What motivates them? What are they interested in? What will they likely agree with, and what will they argue about? Why should they care about what you have to say? And if you’re writing advertising or sales messages, why should they do what you will ask them to do?
“But Scott,” you say (I know what you’re saying.) “Writing is hard. Can you make it easier with a step-by-step process we can follow?”
Of course. Start by getting a GRIP. Before you write your next letter, or blog post, or proposal, or novel, before you jot down that spectacular opening sentence that came to you in a dream or in the shower, get a GRIP:
- Goal—a reason to write, a purpose, something you are trying to achieve
- Readers—know who they are (see rule #2 above)
- Idea—your message (see rule #1, above)
- Plan—make an outline.
I promise, the theory won’t take long and won’t hurt that much. Well, it won’t hurt me, anyway.
We write to communicate, to get our ideas from our minds into the minds of our audience. Here’s the theory part: we encode our ideas or our thoughts using language in the form of spoken or written words. We then transmit those words over a medium to an audience.
That’s the basic model of communication I was taught way back in stone college. The model holds up for every form of communication from speaking to one person to broadcasting radio to Twitter. The theory has four key elements:
- Source—the encoder of the information
- Message—the information that’s encoded and sent
- Medium—the way the message is sent: speech, written words on paper, bits over the Internet
- Receiver—the computer, the radio player, but ultimately, the mind of the audience.
I tend to focus on elements 2 and 4, and accept elements 1 and 3 as givens. I can’t do much about my mind as the source (although sometimes I wish I could), so I’ll have to take what I have. And I adapt to the medium as I find it, whether that’s a podium at the front of a classroom, or a telephone, or Twitter, or this blog. I have to adapt the message to the constraints of the medium. I won’t get into the McLuhanesque “is the medium the message” discussion now, because that would break my own rule #1.
Elements 2 and 4 map well to my rules: message and audience. See how all this fits together?
Enough theory. Let’s get a GRIP.
Before you actually start writing your message, whether it’s a memo to the boss, a sales report, an accident report, a proposal, an advertisement or a novel: get a grip.
Writing your document, whatever it is, is like any other major project. You don’t throw your clothes into the laundry with separating whites and colours, you don’t start cooking pasta without boiling the water first and then adding oil and salt, you don’t paint without at least wiping down the wall.
Before you start that beautiful opening sentence that came to you in the shower, write down the answers to the following questions first. You can write them on the computer, but often I find using a nice pen or fine marker on a good pad of paper is more satisfying.
GRIP: goal, reader, idea, plan.
Goal—why are you writing? You could be drinking beer, making love or sweeping the garage. You better have a good reason for writing! Your writing has to have a concrete goal, an aim, something to achieve. You want to sell something? You want people to vote for your candidate? Maybe you just have a story to tell.
Communication is a tool we use to achieve something. Sometimes, the act itself is very satisfying, but writing for ourselves is not really communicating. It’s like masturbation: it feels good, but it doesn’t accomplish anything, and no one will pay attention for long—and those that will, you don’t want to.
Reader—As I said above, you need to understand whom you are writing to. Once you’ve figured out what you’re trying to achieve with your writing, you need to connect your purpose to your audience. For example, if you’re trying to convince your community to elect a particular candidate, you have to be able to tell your readers what’s in it for them. How will they be better off?
The more you know about your audience, the better you can make your message. Do some research. What interests this audience? What makes them pay attention? What do they need that they don’t have? What do they not want to have? What makes them happy, what makes them mad, what makes them turn and stare, goggle-eyed?
There are some things that all people, everywhere, always, want: food, sex, safety, shelter. But the more specific you are, the more effective you can be.
Idea—the message. After you know your goal and your audience, write down your message as one sentence. In high school, I was told that this was the “thesis statement.” I was impressed at the time. “Thesis” sounded like an expensive word. But all it really means is the main idea.
Before you write your undying prose or poetry, you have to be able to sum it all up in one sentence. If you can’t do that, you haven’t clarified it. And if it’s not clear to you, you cannot make it clear to anyone else. Steve Jobs’ message? “Apple computers are fun and cool.” Mitt Romney’s message: “God will smite you if you don’t elect me President.” See?
This is perhaps the hardest part of all. Don’t be afraid to try it several times. Write it down, change it, cross it out, start over, try it from a different angle. Change the order of your words and phrases. Don’t worry if it’s a long sentence. It can be a complex-compound sentence with subordinate clauses and qualifying phrases, but it has to be a single, grammatically-correct, complete sentence. One thought.
Spend some time on it.
I know, it’s hard. But you can do it.
Plan—Now, the part that all my college students hated the most. After you figure out why you’re writing, whom you’re writing for and what your point is, make an outline.
After all, even though your main message, your thesis, is one sentence, you’ll probably need more than one sentence to convince your readers to achieve your goal. If that weren’t necessary, there Apple wouldn’t have such an extensive website.
An outline is like the frame of a house. I always start with a “scratch outline”—just a list, in no particular order, of all the ideas I want to get into the document to support the main idea. I try to make sure I have all the facts that I have found in my research, all the ideas I had as I was working on the other steps, all the arguments for and against the main idea.
Get them all down on paper or screen, then put them into order. Play the Sesame Street game: “some of these things belong together.” Look for categories and items within categories. Then, put them in a logical order.
What order? Well, that depends on your goal, your idea and your audience. You can use a chronological order if you’re writing an accident report: “I pressed on the brake pedal, but the brake did not engage. The car continued until it hit the wall. Then it stopped.”
A lot of proposals use a problem-solution order: “Do you have bad breath? Use Scope!”
In a future post, I’ll present some exercises to help you with making an outline. But for now, I think that’s enough.
Before you want to write, you have to know what you’re writing and you have to know whom you are writing for.
Before you write the first line, get a GRIP: write down your goal, your reader, your main idea, and your plan.
And when you get stuck (all we writers get stuck from time to time), go back to those first two rules: what am I saying? and whom am I saying it to?
I hope to blog to you again soon! And I hope you’re reading here!