Thursday, June 22, 2006

Writing Tips

Q. Aside from "write about what you know," which all English teachers urge, what advice can you give about nonfiction writing?

A. I love these open-ended questions, but I'd need an entire book to answer that one. Writing is a juggling act; a writer has to keep many things spinning simultaneously. But let me mention three considerations that are sometimes given short shrift.

First, never lose sight of your audience. They have a major role in shaping what you have to say and how you burnish it. Use questions such as these as guidelines:
  • What does my audience already know about the subject?
  • What do I think they should know or believe about my subject?
  • What do they already know about me and my credentials?
  • What do I want them to know about me or my specific angle?
  • Do they have contrary attitudes that I need to overcome?

Second, keep your purpose sharply in mind as you write. Ask yourself
  • Do I want to explain something about the subject?
  • Do I want to express something about myself or stay in the background?
  • Do I want to persuade my audience to do something or simply to believe?
  • Do I want to learn something by inviting readers' responses?
  • What one strong outcome do I desire after people have read my piece?
Finally, strictly control your tone, the attitude which shows through in your words. Being formal or informal, serious or humorous, magisterial or inquiring — these must always be matters of deliberate choice. Try using these considerations to set your tone:
  • Does this assignment place me in the role of teacher or leader?
  • Does this assignment place me in the role of an equal?
  • Does this assignment place me in the role of a learner or disciple?
  • Is this a formal or a relaxed situation?
  • Will humor dishonor my topic or alienate some of my readers?
  • Should I speak from the head or from the heart?
APT advice: audience, purpose, tone.

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