How to avoid butt-brushing your readers

Word count: 747 words

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Have you ever experienced a butt-brushing while shopping? Worse, have you ever inflicted one while writing? Read on to learn more.

Send me into a grocery store and I’ll happily spend an hour picking over produce and looking for the very best breads and cheeses. Point me in the direction of a bookstore and I’ll disappear for hours, perusing the shelves and then perching in a corner to enjoy a great read. But don’t you dare ever send me on any other form of shopping!

I loathe shopping with a passion that borders on the savage. For me, there’s no worse fate than being sent to buy clothes. I despise pawing through racks of suits and dresses and I think there’s nothing worse than being forced to try on a pair of jeans. Nor do I like shopping for furniture, plants or even gifts. Given my antagonistic attitude toward so-called retail-therapy it’s a small wonder I even picked up the book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill. Never mind, I read it and loved it.

Underhill is an environmental psychologist and his clever little tome deconstructs the shopping experience. Besides describing exactly what stores do wrong — for example, having their checkout desks in the wrong spot, displaying woeful signage, or placing products badly — Underhill writes with great seriousness about something he calls the butt-brush effect. I am not making this up!

Apparently, few things disturb shoppers more than having someone approach them from behind and accidently, brush their butt. (This happens when aisles are too narrow.) Who knew? But as soon as I read about this phenomenon, I agreed. I hated it too! And then another idea occurred to me: What are the metaphorical butt-brushes that we writers unwittingly inflict upon our readers? I think there are three main ones:

1) Making spelling and grammar mistakes: If you’ve read my column for a while you’ll know I’m not a spelling and grammar zealot. I believe we should all write as quickly as possible — without worrying about sentence construction and spelling. But, eventually, we all need to attend to the rules of spelling and grammar.

This is hard when you’re checking your own writing because you’re too close to it. Once, when I worked in the newspaper business, I mistakenly used the word “you’re” when I meant “your.” (I knew the difference.) That this error appeared in an article about a nationally known author only deepened my humiliation.

There are a number of strategies you can use to avoid mistakes like this:

(a) try to wait at least a day before self-editing your work,

(b) read the work backwards (start with the last paragraph, then the second last paragraph, then the third last paragraph etc.),

(c) if reading electronically, change the font and point size to something big and dramatic (I like Papyrus 20 pt.), and

(d) read your work aloud.

2) Telling too many facts, and not giving enough stories: So many writers think their job is to convey specific information. Well, it is. But that’s not the only job. First, you have to entice people into actually wanting to read. And the best way to do that is wonderfully simple: Tell stories and anecdotes. The human brain is hard-wired for ’em.

If you just do a data-dump on readers, they’re going to lose interest. Instead, lure them into your writing with a story. This is a bit of the old Mary Poppins technique — a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. (For example, you’ll have noticed that I began this column with a story about my shopping phobia.) People not only want to read stories, they remember them better than facts.

3) Writing too many words: I don’t know about you but I spend an awful lot of the day at my computer. I spend more time reading blogs, newsletters and Internet sites than I do reading newspapers and magazines. (And I love print!) Given the fire-hose of information aimed at the general public these days, we writers should be cautious fire marshals.

I keep this column to 750 words or less. It’s a bite-sized chunk and you can read it in less than three minutes. But many blogs I glance at seem to regard 1,000 words as the minimum entry. If only more bloggers followed the same principle as pros like Seth Godin they’d realize that less is more. Somewhere between 200 and 500 words is about the most anyone wants from a daily blogger.

Butt-brushing. It’s a terrible mistake in stores. And it’s just as bad in writing.