3 writing lessons from Sebastian, the electrical worker

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Today’s column describes three ways for getting out of your own head — and into the minds of your readers. Let’s call it 3 writing lessons…

Last Tuesday morning I was walking through our house. Not the house I’m living in now, which is a rental, but our own house. The one we’re renovating.

Of course the word “renovating” barely begins to do the experience justice. Essentially, we’re rebuilding our house, from the studs up. We even hoisted the structure up on jacks to move it two feet east and pour a new foundation.

The reason behind all of this is a long tedious story involving a structural problem with our house, the insane real estate prices in Vancouver, and the fact that our property was legally two separate lots. I’ll spare you the gory details and simply say that by selling one of the lots and using the money to renovate we chose an option infinitely more troublesome but cheaper than buying another house.

Anyway, there I was, strolling through the stripped-down house to review the electrical installation. As soon as I walked in the door one of the workers, Sebastian, groaned, looked me in the eye and said, “I’m taking a break now — this is just the time I happen to do that.”

It was clear he wasn’t angry at me for disrupting his coffee. Instead, he was worried about what I might think of him. This was the second day in a row I’d arrived at the start of his break. But here’s the deal — my brain didn’t make the leap to “why is this guy lazing about so much?” Instead, I thought: “Good for Sebastian, for thinking of me and for considering how I might perceive his work attitude.”

As writers, we need to think like Sebastian. When we write, we’re locked inside our own heads. We have some core message we want to communicate and we’re obsessed with getting all the details down on paper — we don’t want to leave out anything important.

But, hey, we’re not writing for ourselves, are we? Unless we’re working on, say, a private journal entry, we’re writing for other people — readers and maybe even potential buyers. If they don’t get our point — or, worse, if they stop reading — then all our work goes for naught. Here are three ways to get out of your own head and into the heads of your readers:

(1) Tell a story. From the days we sat around fires outside of our caves, we’ve been waiting for stories. I’m convinced it’s part of our human hard wiring. Readers don’t want a data dump — they want to be persuaded or entertained. Stories can help you do that. You’ll notice how I began this column with a story about my home renovation. Then, in paragraph 6, I related the story to writing. You may not be able to execute this manoeuvre with every piece you write. But you can do it with many of them.

(2) Ensure you haven’t left any gaps. In my first version of this column, I’d failed to explain that our property was legally two separate lots and that we’d sold one. The detail didn’t seem relevant. But, on reflection, I realized the fact was essential. Really, it was the only thing that truly explained why we were crazy enough to rebuild our house. So I added in that extra bit of info.

(3) Be sure to leave some time (ideally at least one day) between your writing and your editing. I’m certain I’d never have noticed the gap, above, unless I’d let a day pass between the writing and the editing of the first part of my column. We often forget how much we know — particularly about subjects in which we have any expertise or experience. When editing, I find it essential to read the work aloud, S-L-O-W-L-Y. The writing brain is pretty good at filling in the gaps so this process is helped immeasurably if some time has passed between the writing and editing. Then you’re more likely to be able to find the work “fresh” and discover previously unseen problems.

Just like electricians and contractors, we writers need to learn that we’re not doing the work for ourselves. We’re doing it for other people. Now I can thank Sebastian not just for his excellent wiring but also for his reminder to me of this important detail.

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