Explaining Context

Good writing is all about good communication. Fail to communicate and you’ve missed the point of writing. But what writing/communication works the best? It all depends on the context.

Which is why it’s so important to know your audience.

I have three kids: 8, 6, and 1-year-old. How I communicate with each of them is very different because of their ages. My 8-year-old understands more than my 6-year-old, and the 1-year-old can’t hold a conversation yet. How I communicate with them is completely different from the way I communicate with my wife. How I communicate with my wife is different from the way I communicate with my coworkers – not just because of the intimacy level but because we discuss different things at work than at home.

Now this all may seem really obvious, and some of you may be sighing “duh!” at this point.

I’m with you. But wait, there’s more…don’t give up on this post yet.

When you write, you not only write but also edit for your audience. Do you need to explain everything? Or does your audience get it?

Several years ago, I worked for a major technology company that sold optical fiber cabling and network solutions to businesses and utility companies. Dull, no? Not if you’re in the industry. To the engineers and IT gurus we sold to, it was drool-worthy. To the average person, not so much. And that’s the point.

Take your expert knowledge to a dinner party to practice your editing skills. Do most folks at your table understand what you do? When they ask you what you do, what will you say? If you get down and dirty about writing, will they follow? Try diving into the weeds about your editing regimen and see how many eyes glaze over.

If you have any social awareness whatsoever, you will adjust the amount of detail you disclose if you want to make new friends and keep the old ones. How far down do you dig? It’s important to choose the right size shovel.

When people asked me what I did back then, I had to decide: high level of detail or Reader’s Digest version? Usually it was the latter. (See what I did there? I assume because you are educated that you know what Reader’s Digest is. It was a pretty safe assumption, I’m thinking.) But when I wrote marketing pieces, the more detail the merrier. Customers ate it up.

When you compose a scene, how much detail do you include? How about a character description or an action sequence? Does the reader care what color hair the fairy princess has or the model of gun the bank robber is holding? Maybe, maybe not. Do you assume your reader knows a certain amount because of the level of writing and your target audience? How do you decide?

The key to effective writing is to make it fun and interesting, which means you have to make some judgment calls. It’s too easy to edit for ourselves because we know us and know what interests us. Appealing to ourselves is easy. Just the act of writing satisfies us on some level.

But does your writing appeal to your audience in a way they understand and want to pay attention? Or did you lose them in the opening sentence or partway through?

The challenge we all face as writers is to strike the balance between being too vague and too detailed. Do the details bog down the story or enhance it? Does the reader need to know everything to understand the story? Or can they fill in the gaps based on what they already know?

This is why you make the big bucks.


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