A 12-step program for writers who care about readers

Word count: 710 words

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Many people sing the praises of a 12-step program; others make jokes about them. Have you ever thought of trying one for your writing? I’ll give you the formula, below.

I’m no hockey fan, so when I was tired and bored one evening last week, I didn’t put The Game on TV. Instead, I idly flipped the remote and settled briefly on Intervention — a  reality TV program I hoped would be more savoury than other examples of the genre.

Described as “a powerful and gripping television series in which people confront their darkest demons and seek a route to redemption,” the episode I saw focused on a young woman who shot herself up with I-cannot-remember-which drug with inexorable fury. The show was relentless as a child with a hammer. But who knows what grief this woman was subjected to as a youth? And who fully understands the role her own genes might have played in her various habits?

While I had nothing but sympathy for the woman, I could see she was relentlessly self-absorbed. When talking to the camera in the faux-private mode of reality TV, she spoke only of how badly her family had treated her.

As far as she was concerned, the drugs weren’t one of her difficulties. No, her problems were that no one understood her, no one supported her, no one cared about her. (This despite considerable evidence to the contrary from her mother, father, sisters and therapist.)

That’s when it hit me right between the eyeballs.

When we’re writing, we should always imagine that we’re writing for addicts.

Why? Because that will give us the closest approximation to the true level of disinterest held by most of our readers.

I know this sounds harsh, but think how often we writers presume our potential readers are practically desperate to hear what’s in our brains. We know so much! We’re so smart! We have such intelligent and obviously well founded opinions! How could anyone resist what we have to say?

Well, the evidence is depressing. Do you know that 25% of Americans didn’t read a single book last year? And for the rest of the country, the average is somewhere between only three and nine books. At the same time, more and more employers are using the word “deficient” to describe their workers’ basic reading comprehension skills. And, as for that saviour of reading, the Internet, the average amount of time spent on a web page is measured in seconds rather than minutes.

Yes, we can complain about all of these stats — in much the same way that the drug addicts’ parents complained about their daughter’s addiction. Fat lot of good that does.

Instead, as writers, we need to take responsibility for what we can control, for the words we write. I think our principle job isn’t just to share information — it’s to try to get attention.

This doesn’t mean telling our readers only what they want to hear (just as supporting an addict doesn’t mean giving him or her more drugs). It does mean being more interesting.

Here, then, is my own 12-step program to help you do that.

1) I admit I am powerless to force my readers to do anything — I understand they will read whatever they like, whenever they want to.

2) I know I can increase my readers’ interest by telling them stories and anecdotes and by giving real-life examples.

3) I will always use concrete language rather than abstractions.

4) I will use metaphors and analogies to make my point whenever possible.

5) I know that short words and short sentences are more enticing to readers.

6)  I will strive to avoid weak verbs such as “is” and “was”. (Instead try “praise,” “adore,” “command,” “glance,” “evokes.” All five verbs were used in just two paragraphs written by a friend of mine who is a superb wordsmith.)

7) I will not be redundant. That is, I will not say the same thing over and over again. (Sorry, bad joke!)

8 ) I will avoid jargon, clichés and acronyms.

9) I will keep my writing simple and straightforward.

10) I will strive to be truly succinct.

11) I will always read my work out loud before submitting it or allowing it to be published.

12) I will read well because reading well is the single most important step to writing well.

Twelve simple steps. How many do you follow?