Something I find strange is that people don’t draw on their own experience of reading when they begin to write. As such, they often don’t write in a way that they themselves would be drawn to.
Let me start here with a couple of questions. Please answer honestly.
- Do you read systematically? That is, do you work through a series of subscribed journals, and read them as they are published, perhaps adding into this a couple of electronic tables of contents of other popular journals?
- Do you have a pile of guilt? A pile of guilt is the stack of unopened, or unread, journals that sits on your desk or your floor, which you avoid looking at directly because it makes you feel a little guilty that you haven’t read them.
If you answered “Yes” to question 1, you’re in a very small, and rather unusual group. I’ve met about 4 people who I genuinely believe to be in the “Yes” group, and they’re a little, well, odd. Very good, clever, skilled, but frankly it’s very hard to be normal in this group. Incidentally – and I’ve never met him so I can’t comment on his character, but if you’re not looking at Richard Lehman’s blog regularly, he appears to be in the Yes group, and he’s brilliant with it.
If you answered “No” to question 2, you’re also in a very small group. Your house and office are probably very tidy. Or you are a demon recycler. Or both.
The rest of us can’t read systematically. We try things to fool ourselves. We take on jobs and roles to force us to be systematic. We sign up for emails in an attempt to fool ourselves into reading more. But we fail, and our pile of guilt grows. This isn’t because we’re lazy or feckless. It’s because life is busy, thank goodness, and fun and full of so many distractions. I don’t have time put aside in my work life to read. I read in the heat of the moment when I need to understand something, or while I’m waiting for my computer to boot, or on the bus.
This brings me to a really important point. When you are writing, and wishing for it to be read, you are competing with the reader’s leisure time.
Imagine your completed article. It is in print. The reader has reached into their pile of guilt and taken the journal out of the wrapper. The next stop for the journal is into the recycling bin. Your challenge is to make your message sticky – to make them give you the 20 seconds to see what the article is about, and then the 15 minutes it will take to read the whole thing. To increase the wrapper to recycling time. To write something memorable, that someone may return to in that emergency, or that they might share with a colleague. You’ve no business being boring, unclear or obtuse. This doesn’t mean that your article has to be fun fun fun, but it should be accessible, easy to read, and interesting.
You might like to skip back and read the others in this series too …