Today’s guest blog post, on the topic of being concise, is brought to you by writing guide guru Marcia Riefer Johnston.
Say One Thing
According to the bestselling book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, if you want your message to stick, you must first figure out the one thing you want to say. Then, say that one thing.
- “Find the core of the idea.”
- “You can’t have five North Stars, [and] you can’t have five ‘most important goals’.”
- “The hard part is weeding out ideas that may be really important but just aren’t the most important idea.”
- “Forced prioritization is really painful. Smart people recognize the value of all the material.”
- “When your remote control has fifty buttons, you can’t change the channel anymore.”
- “If you say three things, you don’t say anything.”
How hard could it be to say just one thing? Hard. Remember your English teacher scribbling in your margin, “Where’s your thesis statement?” Busted! Maybe that never happened to you, but many students fill page after page with information—so many facts, so little space!—without ever bringing it all together to say one thing.
Have you ever sat through a presentation—a perfectly fine one that kept you nodding your head without ever making you nod off—only to discover, when someone asked you about it a few minutes later, that you couldn’t remember what it was about? That presenter may have had a lot to say, but he or she didn’t say one thing.
Think back to your own most recent challenging piece of writing: a white paper, a book, a blog post, a Help topic, a mission statement. Did you know from the start the one thing that it needed to say? What was it? Did you know it by the end? Did your readers see that one thing?
Your one thing may have pieces and parts: sub-things, side-things, example-things, on-the-other-hand-things. To convey your one thing, you may need details, pictures, tables, charts. Footnotes, sidebars, pull-quotes, specs. I confess, those things sometimes lure me away from the one thing.
If you write task, concept, and reference topics (as many technical writers do), you know that each topic must answer one and only one main question: How do I…? What is…? Where can I look up…? Figuring out that one question gets you off to a good start. But topics balloon. You start out saying one thing, and, next thing you know, you’re saying five things. Your one question branches into five questions. And maybe that works. Maybe those five questions work as subtopics within your topic—maybe they all support your main message. Then again, maybe you need to divvy up your topic into five topics, each new topic saying one thing.
One thing. Simple but not easy. I’ve known this principle for decades. I own this principle. Yet I struggle to put it into practice. While I was writing Word Up!—a book about writing—my husband sometimes asked me, after reading a chapter, “What’s your thesis here?” Busted! Even after all these years, I get caught up in the many things I want to say, and I forget the importance of tying them together so that they all say one thing.
While noodling on this principle, my whiteboard caught my eye. It looked like this:
Now it looks like this:
For the moment, I like it better. Now that it … you know.
This post first appeared August 21, 2013, in Marcia’sTechWhirl column, “Word Wise.”
Thank you, Marcia. That was great.
To share her love of writing, she has collected some one-of-a-kind essays into a book:
“Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them).” This book has become a #1 best seller on Amazon under Writing Skills.
At Lake Forest College, Marcia wrote one-act plays that were performed on the campus stage, learned from, and buried. She studied under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff in the Syracuse University creative-writing program. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University. She has done writing of all kinds for organizations of all kinds, from the Fortune 500 to the just plain fortunate.
Marcia has written for the scholarly journal “Shakespeare Quarterly,” the professional journal “Technical Communication,” and the weekly newspaper “Syracuse New Times.” She used to write letters by the boxful. She has contributed posts to her daughter’s Peace Corps blog, texts to her son’s Droid, and answers to her husband’s crossword puzzles. Her words have landed on billboards, blackboards, birthday cakes, boxes of eggs, and the back of her book. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
I then invited Marcia to provide a synopsis of her book…
Want to know how to write more powerfully? You’ve come to the right book. “Word Up!”—an eclectic collection of essays, more inspiration guide than style guide—serves up tips and insights for anyone who wants to know how to write with umph.
“Word Up!” does what too few writing books do: it practices while preaching, shows while telling, uses powerful writing to talk about powerful writing.
“Word Up!” explores the perplexities and celebrates the pleasures of the English language. It leaves you smiling—and ready to conquer your next blank (or blah) page.
Even the best writers want to know how to write more powerfully.
You may write blog posts, e-books, e-mails, executive summaries, e-zine articles, hospital-hallway signs, presentations, proposals, lab reports, letters to the editor, love letters, lunch-bag notes, movie reviews, news stories, novels, online help, plays, poems, proposals, recipes, reference manuals, scholarly critiques, speeches, term papers, tweets, user-interface text, video scripts, web pages, or white papers.
You may write for a million readers or for one. You may use a pen, a typewriter, a wiki, or an XML authoring tool. You may be a grammar snob, or you may think that “grammar snobs are great big meanies.” You may write because something within you says you can’t not write—or because your boss says you can’t not write. No matter what you write, or how or why, you and I and every other writer have two things in common: we use words, and we want someone to want to read them.
How do you get people to want to read your words? Know your subject. Know your audience. And write powerfully.
“Word Up!” helps you write powerfully. More details from http://howtowriteeverything.com
If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. Guidelines on guest-blogs. There are other options listed on opportunities-on-this-blog.
You can sign up to receive these blog posts daily or weekly so you don’t miss anything. You can contact me and find me on the internet, view my Books (including my debut novel The Serial Dater’s Shopping List, various short story collections and writer’s block workbooks) and I also have a blog creation / maintenance service especially for, but not limited to, writers. If you like this blog, you can help me keep it running by donating and choose an optional free eBook.
For writers / readers willing to give feedback and / or writers wanting feedback, take a look at this blog’s Feedback page.
As I post a spotlight or interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do. If there’s anything you’d like to take part in, take a look at Opportunities on this blog.
I welcome items for critique directly (see Editing & Critique) or for posting on the online writing groups listed below:
Morgen’s Online Non-Fiction Writing Group
Morgen’s Online Novel Writing Group
Morgen’s Online Poetry Writing Group
Morgen’s Online Script Writing Group
Morgen’s Online Short Story Writing Group
We look forward to reading your comments.