How to Write Effectively and Get People to Care

    09/12/2018

    "You have a problem with something and it needs to be solved. I will show you where your problem is and provide you with a solution!”. That, according to Larry McEnerney of the University of Chicago, is how we should all start a piece of writing in order to be effective. Looking back at all of my previous blogs I am kicking myself and realizing that although I have constructed some interesting, well-written articles about science, law, policy and healthcare, it has all been written primarily for myself. I have disregarded you, the audience (whoever you are), and am being punished with having relatively few readers. But the problem goes deeper than that and it affects many writers from all areas of society. A lot of people write blogs, papers and even grant proposals expecting everyone to read it and expecting the world to change. In fact the world ignores these articles or just rejects them out right because no one actually cares. We, the ineffective writers, have forgotten the principle rule of writing - to cater to the right audience with things they care about. It turns out that while writing is done by ourselves, locked away in a room, the purpose of writing is to start a relationship with the audience, continuing an interactive dialogue. Only then do we present a possibility of providing value, giving them a sense that the article is worth reading on. With that I will jump straight into what I have learnt from watching a couple of McEnerney’s videos on how to write effectively. You can watch the videos here and here.

    1. Your writing must be Valuable.

    We have all been taught that writing should be persuasive, organized, clear and somewhat valuable. However, the most important aspect is creating VALUE! We have to identify the target audience and write in a language that the audience wants emotionally. If we write just for ourselves, it’s all over for the audience. People get annoyed, bored and stop reading - but please don’t do that here!

    2. You write for the readers, not for yourself.

    Everything we have ever been taught by our English teachers up to high school has been WRONG (except for spelling and basic grammar). We have been trained to write out our ideas, submit it as text into the world and everyone will read it. But our readers in school have always been teachers (or parents) who are paid to care about what we think or know. However, in the real world, the function of text is to cause readers’ minds to change. Readers will not care about what I think. Readers only care about what they think or do! The text must flow with the audience’s expectations, not with my own experience.

    3. Pamper the audience.


    What is important to the reader? There are two types of audiences that we, the writers, have often failed to satisfy. One is the general public and the second is the expert in academia. Let’s start with the academic because they are most familiar to me.

    (i) The expert in academia who decides whether to fund your grant proposal

    We were taught in school about a “Positivistic World”. We were taught that knowledge is built up over time and every time we found out a bit about something we did not know, we could just add it to the existing pool of knowledge. We thought that as long as knowledge grows in any shape or form, everybody will be happy. This is inconsistent with the real world! In the real world there are a bunch of people who get to decide what knowledge is and what is important. Who are they and why do they get to decide? Well, they are the experts in your community and they just get to do it. Their conversations matter and luckily their conversations will change over time. Over time, some knowledge gets accepted and some knowledge gets left behind. However, when you submit a paper or a grant, you have to deal with these experts, to convince them that you can also join in on the conversation. You must get to know who the experts are in your field and what they did to become so important.

    Learn the code: In order to join in on their high level conversation and get your findings published, you have to learn the code. The code is to begin every paper with a variation of an ego massage, ie. “Wow are you smart! You have contributed to the community in fabulous ways! Your work is excellent!….. BUT, there is this little tiny thing you got wrong…” then come in with your argument. Then you point to the anomaly but you leave it open to explanations. Only then will the expert reviewer or grant referee decide to maybe read on. Never introduce your paper by saying “There is something I want to add to the field…”. No expert will want to read it.

    (ii) The average reader of the New York Times, CNN and Medium

    Unlike in school, readers in the real world do not care about your objective arguments. People read in order to be entertained on some level. Entertainment is the value they seek and the bread and butter of major news outlets (I know, this sounds cynical). Often, New York Times articles are written in shorter sentences. This allows the reader who is on the move, reading on the train, on the smartphone, to get the idea quickly. The longer your sentences are, the more you will interfere with the reader’s thinking processes. If your writing interferes with their thinking, they will get annoyed, bored and stop reading. People like to have their attention captured and if it’s shocking or bad, it will attract people even more. This leads onto the final point:

    4. Create valuable tension

    Always sprinkle your first few paragraphs with words that cause tension. Tension is valuable to the reader because they will be attracted to it. McEnerney gave an example of five words:

    But
    Although
    However
    Inconsistent
    Anomaly

    (Notice how I have added these words into the above paragraphs!!)

    These words, among others, create instability for the reader and get them engaged. It highlights a problem you are introducing. If you know the readers in your community, you can address them directly and find a polite way to say, “Hey readers, I have read your stuff. I know what you think. But, you are wrong!!! Here is why… and here is how to solve it…” Obviously it is impolite to directly write this in the introduction. Therefore you must learn the code, write something that validates the community’s past thinking, appreciate their previous work and then hit them with what has been missing. People love to have a problem presented to them and see it become enriched. The most effective papers are not structured purely as the classic “Introduction, Middle and Conclusions”. The best literature reviews enrich a problem and create instability.

    After watching McEnerney’s writing classes I have to agree with him that some of these ideas seem controversial, even verging on Fascist. You are not being encouraged to think for ourselves or to be brave about broadcasting our thoughts to the world. However, if your career depends on a grant proposal, a paper or a news media article, you have to play by the rules of this society. Ultimately, you have to give the people what they want.

    References:

    Image: https://media.springernature.com/original/springer-static/image/chp%3A10.1007%2F978-981-10-4720-6_15/MediaObjects/433448_1_En_15_Figa_HTML.gif

    Youtube videos of Larry McEnerney

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtIzMaLkCaM&t=1040s

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFwVf5a3pZM