Writing Right with Dmitri - How Not to Be a Travel Bore

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Writing Right with Dmitri: How Not to Be a Travel Bore

Editor at work.

Sometimes, we get so sophisticated in our discussion of writing issues that we neglect the basics. Today, I'd like to address a really fundamental issue: how to speak to your reader. No, I don't mean the question of first, second, or third person. What I mean is, how do you get them to see what's in your head? Before they can respond, they have to understand it. I'll explain that in a minute.

When I was a child, a very wise lady taught me her definition of communication. Communication only happens, she said, when the idea in your head gets from there, via your mouth, pen, or whatever, to the other person's head. For that, you've got to be as precise as you can. And you have to speak a common language.

Ah, there's the rub. How do you make sure you're not just talking to yourself? The difference between talking to yourself and communicating is essentially the difference between a self-referential blog-poster and…well, an actual writer. Let me give you an example.

What I Did on My Holiday

We all know these people: the couple who went on an exciting holiday. For weeks, all they talked about was their plans – where they bought the tickets, where they were going to go, who was going to water the plants while they were gone… You got tired of this. Then, a couple of weeks of blessed silence. You noticed the newspapers piling up on the front porch, and chuckled about what they'd forgotten.

Then, alas, they returned. And got the 200 slides back from the processor.

Rickshaws in Dhaka.

Oh, lord, that endless evening. The slightly-out-of-focus shot of the Great Pyramid. The trick shot of George 'holding up' la tour Eiffel Dozens and dozens of pictures (sans feet) of our anorak-clad travellers with their arms around total strangers…

'And these are John and Mary, really great people. We met them on the tour bus outside Pompeii. Boy, do they overcharge. And the food was terrible…honey, do you remember what John said…?'

Eunice, giggling: 'Oh, yeah. I'll never forget the look on that waiter's face…'

You get the idea. For a couple of hours, you are their captive audience, as they relive the glory and fun of their holiday. They can't really explain it. After all, 'You had to have been there.' No doubt.

Do People Write Like That?

Is the Pope from Latin America? Of course they do. They do it all the time.

I'm going to break protocol and ask you to visit another website for a moment. Try this account of a trip to Kaifeng, China Notice two things:

  • How much space is wasted on information you don't care about. Are you really interested in the author's food preference?
  • What part of the story is really interesting to you – the person who was not there. Don't you just love Jason? Don't you wish you knew more about him?

See what I mean? When telling a story, try to think of what the reader wants to know – not what you want to tell. If you're lucky, sometimes those two things will overlap, for just a moment. And you will have magic. In the meantime, slog on, and remember that Bob and Linda don't actually care what you had for lunch at the Patmos taverna, or what it did to your digestion. But they'd really enjoy the story about the Greek taxi driver and the donkeys. Guaranteed.

Here's an exercise for you: go searching around h2g2. I won't tell you where to look, other than in the Post and on other people's journal pages. Read their travel descriptions. Ask yourself: when I read this, am I there? Do I want to be? Did I learn something I didn't know before, other than that the person in question spilled their coffee, lost their wallet, or whatever?

When you find some good travel descriptions, enjoy. And make mental notes about how to do it yourself.

Happy armchair travelling!


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