As an inter-galactically famous E-Newsletter expert, one of the three questions I get asked most often is, “How can I make the process of writing easier?”
(The other two questions are, “How long should our newsletter be?” and “Hey there handsome, can I buy you a drink?”)
And so with that in mind, today’s newsletter focuses on one important idea. An idea that if understood and applied will not just make the process easier, it will make the end product a whole lot better too.
I call it the “What’s this about?” rule of writing.
Here’s the idea…
One of my joys in life is helping businesspeople communicate better with the outside world. And whether that means interviewing someone and putting it down in written form for them, or coaching someone in how to do it themselves, I always begin by asking the same question: “Where’s my check?”
Ha ha! I’m kidding. I begin by asking “What’s this about?”
Earlier this week, for example, I was on the phone with a new client to discuss an upcoming newsletter. So I asked, WTA?
He didn’t quite hear me though, because he immediately dove down deep (his company is in health care) and started saying things like “clinical non-emergent impediment cycles” and “single payer insured triage classifications.”
I know, I had no idea what he was talking about either. So I apologized for not understanding and asked him again, “Tell me in really simple terms, what’s this about?”
He still didn’t hear me. This time he said something like, “re-calcified hippopotamus gryffindors.”
I had no clue. So I kept asking. To his credit, he kept answering.
Back and forth we went for another fifteen grueling minutes until finally, we were able to strip away the jargon and the confusion and pinpoint the clear, simple idea within that day’s newsletter. We had finally answered, “What’s this about?”
From there it was relative easy and completely straightforward. Sure, I needed a lot more information from him in order to write 800 words on the topic – but it wasn’t painful. Once we uncovered the central point of what we were trying to communicate, the rest was just filling in the details.
Writing’s a funny thing. I think that maybe because it’s so uncomfortable for people, many of us just dive in and start pounding away at the keyboard in the hope that something good will come out the other end.
It rarely does. At least not if the outcome you want is a quality piece with minimal effort.
Think about your writing relative to other, non-writing projects you take on.
You wouldn’t build a house by just randomly nailing together a pile of materials. You wouldn’t take a vacation by just showing up at the airport and getting on the first plane to anywhere. Even making breakfast effectively involves more than simply grabbing whatever you can find in the kitchen and tossing it in the toaster.
In all three cases, you first figure out what you’re trying to accomplish.
Writing’s the same way. It’s less a magical process than it is a deliberate approach to sharing a message. And without a clear answer to the simple “What’s this about?” question, your output will be both painful and lousy.
So here’s what I recommend. The next time you have something – anything – to write, and before you put your hands on the keyboard, take the time to answer the WTA question. When you can explain it in a single sentence – and in words that a fifth grader could understand – you’re ready.
- How time away from the office can lead to better decision making
- What healthcare can learn from baseball in the presentation of data
- Four things to look for when reviewing a contract
Simple, clear, pain-free.
Here’s the bottom line. What makes writing so arduous is not that you don’t know enough words or have enough knowledge. You’ve got a nearly unlimited supply of both.
The struggle comes from trying to string together sentences before you’ve got a really, really, REALLY clear handle on where you’re going. It’s the absence of clarity that causes the pain, not to mention all the hours (days?) required after the fact to unravel the mess.
Take the time first to unearth the simple point – the single thread – that runs through the piece from start to finish. Then watch as the words flow more easily.
You can buy me that drink any time now.
wasn’t it Churchill who said something like if you want me to speak for 3 minutes I need a week to prepare, for hal an hour I need a day and if for an hour I am ready now…about the same thing, the need to focus to find the right words
as always enjoy this and about the drink…since your Bruins beat my Canucks I think you should be buying drinks
That Churchill could sure turn a phrase. Maybe I should drink more.
And yes, sorry about the Bruins. Even more painful, perhaps, is that I don’t even follow hockey! But absolutely, next time we’re together, the drinks are on me!
Awesome Article! And so true. Even when you’re drafting a short email the WTA question can come in handy. Whenever I get stuck rewriting the same paragraph over and over again I find it best to take my fingers of the keyboard and remind myself that this isn’t about me proving that I know all the details. This is about creating something that will be absorbed by the reader. I ask myself “What’s the Take Away”? Once I’m done writing I challenge myself with “What can I edit out?” 🙂
Totally agree Suzan. Especially the “what can I edit out?” Sometimes painful to remove the well-crafted lines, but necessary when they don’t add anything. Thanks for reading (and writing!).
This same advice applies to the proverbial elevator pitch and, in my work, discussing your invention. I consider myself pretty sharp, technically, and if I don’t know what a new client’s invention is after 2 or 3 sentences is you can be pretty sure he or she hasn’t stopped to ask WTA.
I know what you mean Bruce. Heard a bunch of elevator pitches this morning at a meeting and only a few managed to penetrate my understanding! Let alone remembering much about any of them.
In freshman English at the U, our professor told us to discard our first paragraph – that the real WTA is in the second. It doesn’t work all the time, but it can be quite effective – and surprising!
Wow, that’s interesting Roger. Now you’ve got me going back over everything I’ve written!
First, I have to say that if I ever really DO fall off my chair laughing at one of your pieces — like I almost did tonight when it got to houses, vacations and breakfast — I’m going to send you the bill because I don’t follow sports and have no chance of winning drinks from you at distance of 3,000 miles.
And the thing that works for me is to allow myself some left-brain rest when there gnarly things to write (believe it or not, that came out “right” the first time!). My right brain gets the big picture and puts it together nicely when I let it have some space. Then when I sit down to write, I edit very little. When my left brain is running the show, I edit like crazy… because there really ARE way more than enough words on that side and they all want to come out!
Hi Allison! That’s a great insight about being in the right frame of mind (and recognizing it) when writing.
And if you ever make it all the way here, I’ll have the drink ready. I’ll be on your coast next week actually (Palm Springs), but only for about a day and a half so not enough to really enjoy the sites!
Great post here Michael, thank you!
I have been reading and listening to your newsletters for years and love them. You are one of the few that I don’t delete. I think I am very close to signing up for your course!
Keep sending these!
Thanks Pam, I’m glad the newsletters have hit the spot! And watch for a big (BIG) expansion in the type and number of courses offered coming soon.
I’ve been a fan for a long time. I love your advice and perspective, you always make me laugh!
For me writing is totally a magical process! I feel the flow of information channel through me and sometimes I go back to what I’ve written and think, “Wow! I wrote that!” I hardly even remember. Writing is what helped me to first connect with that Divine information and it’s been a magical experience ever since!
Hi Aimee! I love what you said about not being able to believe you wrote something when you look at it later. I think that’s how you know you have a gift for something.
And I’m glad I make you laugh!
Hi Michael. I loved this issue! Boiling the topic down to WTA is very important, especially in this day of instant gratification, short attention spans and twitter. Keep up the great work! Barbara
Thanks on all counts, Barbara!!!
oops…I forgot to say I will gladly deliver on the drink at your convenience!
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