Your Why Starts with a Y-O-U

When I met my husband, he had two beautiful little girls. Jessika was 7. Erika was 5. And every weekend when I would clean the house, they would ask, can I help?

Now, as every homemaker knows, there’s a right way to dust the armoire and there’s the way little girls dust the armoire.

Jessika and Erika did not want to help. They wanted to play with the Pledge and the Windex and the rags and me. And that was fine. But it wasn’t cleaning the house. We weren’t getting the job done. Because our WHY had shiftThe Writer's Triangleed from cleaning the house to spending time together.

And that’s what I want to ask you today, because we’re still talking about The Writer’s Triangle. And this is our Purpose, the first corner. So what is your why?

Now if you say, why am I writing this? you’re going to get a lot of wrong answers. Let me show you.

Let’s say you’re writing a blog about cooking, or writing, or whole foods, or raising children. And you’re writing that blog because you’re in business. If you ask yourself, why am I writing this? pretty soon, you’ll start writing blog posts about business – how to market your business online, social media 101, sell your first ebook. You’ll start attracting all sorts of wrong people and confusing the readers you do have.

Maybe you’re writing a letter to a client. Ask yourself, why am I writing this? My supervisor told me to, this client wrote a letter to us, the client needs an answer, we have a website that addresses his question. And what do you start writing?

I am writing in response to your letter from June 4, 2011. I want to draw your attention to a
website we have that addresses your question. I think you can find all the answers you need right there.

I – I – I. That is not good writing. That is page puke.

Perhaps you’re crafting a technical article. You’ve spent months working in the lab attempting to titrate two chemicals to allow the reaction and produce a phenomenon that could be measured. After endless hours of research you finally discover a fabulous new methodology that allows the breakthrough you need so that the results can be calculated with ease. You are so enamored of the methodology that you spend all of your word count describing IT instead of the phenomenon. You’ve lost your focus.

Those of you who have followed my blog postings know how firmly I believe writing is a product of the ego. And our ego is that raw part of our personality that makes us unique and delightful. But it is also that frightened little beast that keeps us so wrapped up in ourselves we can’t see anything but the present moment and our own concern. I want ice cream. I need to pee. I’m angry.

Fast forward 10 years. Jessika is now 17 years old, and she’s busy with her friends, and her cell phone, and her MySpace page. It’s a Saturday afternoon, and I’m scrubbing the toilet in her bathroom. She bee-bops out of her bedroom to grab a snack from the kitchen, no longer interested in playing with the Pledge or the Windex or with me.

Jessika Today

A recent picture of Jessika, holding her own boy, my grandson Zachary.

Two minutes later, I look up to see her standing in the bathroom door. And she says, do you need help?

Y-O-U

What a difference a pronoun can make!

Stop asking, why am I writing this? And start asking, why is my audience reading this? Then you’ll find a purpose that actually drives the writing and gives you something substantial to work with.

In the case of the blog, remember who your readers are and why they are coming to your site. Are they looking to be entertained or informed? And what topics do they most resonate with? (We’ll talk next week about how to do an audience analysis, the second point on The Writer’s Triangle. So stay tuned for more details.)

When you’re writing a letter to the client, keep your language centered on the client and his needs. Those earlier sentences can easily be rewritten:

Thanks so much for asking that question. The answer you were looking for seems to be —. I found that by looking at our website, which you can access here —.

And in that research article, the reader probably IS interested in your methodology, but not up front, and not all-consuming. Put it in its rightful place, and keep it concise.

So as you begin to write, take the time to discover your Purpose. And remember, your why begins with a Y-O-U – the reader.

Mark your calendar: October 6 – FREE Webinar on The Writer’s Triangle. This 90-minute webinar will cover all aspects of Context, Author, Audience, Purpose. We’ll use real examples to apply the material directly to two radically different situations: writing for the web and crafting an academic journal article. This webinar is a precursor to an 8-week writing course centered on The Writing Cycle. Please join us! Registration details to be posted shortly.

Comments

  1. Great post, Michelle! I love how you illustrated the concept with the stories of your daughters. I look forward to your next post about audience analysis; my blog is starting to get more traffic and a few comments have pointed me in the right direction, but I’m interested in hearing what you have to say. Thanks for the great info.

  2. Hi Michelle,
    I truly enjoyed reading this article. Your first consideration when writing anything should be your audience. There’s no point in telling dog lovers all about cats. Keep up the good write!
    Ellen

  3. Hi Michelle,
    Your post came at a good time. I am in the midst of writing a short story for my creative writing class and was struggling with what to focus on and take to the next stage. Reading you helped take me out of the “what’s my plot” mode back into the “what are my readers likely to enjoy” point of view. I look forward to hearing more about the seminar on October 6!

  4. “Page puke!” Yes! I just finished wiping off a client’s cover letter so the readers could focus more on what she could do for them rather than what she was good at. Her response: “Wow! I am amazed!”

    I was relieved she wasn’t defensive that I’d completely restructured her letter, but I didn’t want to just make her English better–I wanted to give her a better chance at a job, and the best way to do that was to focus on the employer, not herself.

    • Isn’t that a terrible phrase? But it’s so true. I’m glad your client was smart enough to see how smart YOU are!
      So often “grammar” is the catch-all phrase for “I want to be a better writer.” And “better” writing is about so much more than dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. Congratulations for having the courage to reach for the higher fruit!

Trackbacks

  1. […] in writing a document, you have to demonstrate immediately what that has to do with the reader (see Your Why Begins with a Y-O-U). And you must speak from your authentic self (stay tuned for next week’s post). Fail in either […]

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