You may have heard the expression, “can’t see the wood for the trees,” which means, according to Cambridge Dictionaries Online, “unable to understand a situation clearly because you are too involved in it.” Well, this can happen to writers, who can get so bogged down in grammar, vocabulary and punctuation (the “trees”) that they forget about what they’re actually trying to say (the “wood”) – the messages they’re trying to convey.
Meaning needs to take precedence over mechanics or you’re just writing for the sake of it – you’re writing as and end, not as a means.
So, here are some tips for keeping your writing meaningful. I’ve called them the “5 Rs” of writing: relevance, respect, redundancy, reference and repercussions – five areas of writing that, I believe, are often overlooked:
Relevance: When you’re re-reading your work, ask yourself whether the information you’ve included is relevant to your overall message (or messages). Does it help, or is it necessary for communicating your main message/s? People buy your book for what it purports to be – the quickest way to disappoint readers is to include information that is not relevant to the claim/s (or point/s) being made. A quick skim of the negative reviews of books on Amazon will reveal that readers are most angry when they feel they’ve been duped. For example, if you’re book is about how to cheat, lie and steal without being caught, readers will not be happy if, for most of the book, they’re being told to “believe in themselves” – which leads me to respect.
Respect: If you’re writing for adults, remember, they are, indeed, adults, which means they’ve lived quite a bit of life and have a wealth of experience. An example of respect is not telling adults that they have to practise something if they want to become good at it – adults already know that. You might argue that “reminders are always good” but I would argue that it is the average author that reminds readers of things they already know – the special author says something new.
Redundancy: My pet hate! And the second most common complaint by readers on Amazon – that the author used “hundreds of pages” to say something simple, or that they said the same thing over and over again. Redundancy can relate to paragraphs – one paragraph might be saying essentially the same thing as the paragraph before it – or even at the sentence level. For example, look at these two sentences: “Youtube is not the only way you can grow your business. There are other ways.” The second sentence, “There are other ways,” is redundant. The phrase “is not the only way” in the first sentence automatically means (i.e. implies) “there are other ways.” I once pointed this out to an author friend of mine, and he said, “if I cut sentences like that in my book, I’d have no book left!” My answer: “Don’t publish, then. Or write a different book.” My friend countered by saying that the book needs to at least make a decent “thud” when it “hits the table.” So I asked him – would you rather have a “thick” book that exasperates readers because messages are unnecessarily repeated, or a “thin” book that is worth its weight in gold?
“Reference”: “Reference” is related to redundancy. Writers need to remember – or re-read their work to remind themselves of – what they’ve already written in order to avoid unnecessary repetitions and contradictions. If a writer wants to repeat something or contradict him/herself deliberately, the reader needs to know why that’s being done. The reader can get confused if they “suddenly” find a contradiction, or inconsistency, and they can feel cheated if they suddenly discover that information is being repeated. The repetition or contradiction needs to be communicated in context – the reader needs to be reminded, or referred backwards or forwards in the book so that a relationship between current and previous – or future – information makes sense. That author friend of mine provided biographical information about himself both in the introduction of his book and in a later
albeit for a slightly different purpose. He had obviously drafted these two sections of the book at different times, and he hadn’t noticed that the information was largely repeated. Having eliminated redundancy – purely unnecessary stuff – a writer needs to make it clear why he/she is returning to the same topic or theme. Instead of “fresh-minting” his biographical information, as if he hadn’t mentioned it before, my friend could have written, “In the Introduction, I mentioned my experience in working with some of the best companies in the world. The part of that experience that helped me to understand X was….” That’s literally referring the reader to another part of the book. At other times, the reference can be implied. For example, when you say, “Let us look at Topic X now in more detail,” you are indirectly referring the reader to earlier discussion of Topic X – discussion that was broader in nature. But if you simply say, “Let us look at Topic X” when “Topic X” has already been mentioned, you’ll confuse the reader. The reader will ask him/herself, “didn’t we just look at Topic X? Well, ok, we’re looking at it more now, it seems.” When the reader stops, even for a second, to check or question not what the writer is saying but what the writer is trying to say, a “distraction on the reader” occurs. If there are many of these minor “distractions” throughout a book, reading it can be death by a thousand cuts. Be aware of what you’ve already written, and what is to come in your book, and orientate – refer – the reader accordingly – if your book is a “map” you are the “guide.”
Repercussions: Repercussions, which kind of relates to “reference,” is last. Writers need to be aware of the repercussions of what they write – I’m not referring to the repercussions their book will have in society – I’m referring to the repercussions later in the book because of what a writer has written earlier. For example, if you say, “the witch flew off on her broomstick”, that has repercussions – it means – because you’ve established it – that this witch can fly. As a writer, you then need to be careful about saying something later like, “the witch could walk no further because her old knees were hurting,” unless you established why, at some point, she was no longer able to fly. If not, you’re up against the argument that will naturally occur in the reader’s mind: “A witch who has old knees and who can fly has no need to walk.” It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing in – no reader happily accepts a witch who arbitrarily decides to walk if she can fly. If there’s a reason she chooses to – or has to – walk, instead of fly, the reader will “buy in.” An example of “repercussions,” on the sentence level is this: “After 150km, the car had run out of petrol. Not deterred, Jack continued driving to the nearest service station, which was 50km away.” Wait a moment! The first sentence says the car had run out of petrol! Running out of petrol has repercussions – it means the car will roll, basically – thanks to the wheels it is on – until it comes to a complete stop. The car will not do another 50km unless some other driving force (pardon the pun) somehow propels it, but that force needs to established earlier. In the example above, the repercussions of the first sentence were not taken into account when writing the second.
So there you have it – my “5 Rs” for writing!