Monday, February 27, 2006

The Power of Words

I gave a workshop a week ago called the Power of Words. I’d like to share a little of that here because anyone who ever writes anything may find it useful.

The power of words. That isn’t as unfocused as it might sound. Words do have power—IF we use them effectively. That was the true focus of my workshop last week—how to use words effectively. How can we connect, mind to mind and heart to heart with our writing?

I’m not going to go into all of it here but I want to touch on one of the most important points of effective writing. It’s imperative to give readers a reason to CARE about what you are writing—as quickly as possible. Readers might care about the people in your writing or they might care about the situation—ideally they will care about both.

Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, it’s useful to keep in mind that everything is relevant only in terms of how it impacts SOMEONE. Readers will remember historical events far longer if they have a glimpse of how it impacted individual lives. Readers will remember scientific discoveries far longer if they know what it meant to both the person(s) who made the discovery and those whose lives changed because the discovery occurred.

If you are writing memoirs, the more three dimensional ALL of the people in the events you are writing about, the better! Let the reader see the hopes and dreams and fears of each person and they will care far more deeply about those events.

If you are writing fiction, ah, how it matters to give readers a reason to care! There are so many novels out there. How can yours stand out? Your novel will stand out, readers will remember it longer, if they forget they are reading a story and feel as if they have caught a glimpse of real lives. They will remember it longer if they feel the characters’s fears and share the characters’s hopes and dreams. This is why it is so important to make certain that your characters do what real people with the backgrounds you have given them would do. Many beginning writers focus on plot. What’s going to happen? Then they simply have characters do things because it fits the plot. And the manuscript doesn’t sell. It doesn’t FEEL right. A writer can either begin with characters and figure out what they would do to arrive at a plot OR the writer can choose events and then figure out how and why the characters would do these things, adding in background as necessary so that the reader will nod and say to himself or herself, “Yes, of course he/she would do that.”

Readers can certainly understand purely intellectual ideas. And sometimes it is at that level one wishes to connect. Other audiences will care about emotions more than anything else. It’s important to know for whom you are writing.

Even if you are writing technical material, it is always a wise strategy to let the reader know up front how or why this will be of interest to that person! If you write business material, it’s even more important. As they say, when you are writing sales material, it’s nice to list what you have to offer but what potential customers care about is what it will do for them!

So as you write, think about who you are writing for and what those potential readers care about. Give them a reason right up front to care.

All of the material I handed out last week was designed to help writers do just that. (One of the advantages of having a background in mathematics and operations research as well as a strong creative side is that I’m able to be extremely practical as well as talk about the intangible aspects of writing!) I encourage each of you to think carefully--what makes a story or a book or an article come alive for you? What makes you care about what you are reading? Then use that to give life to your writing.

Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself before you begin is: Do I care about this material? Because if YOU do not care about the material, neither will your readers.

Happy writing everyone!