Writing Right with Dmitri: Not Talking to Yourself
What is a journal or diary? Most of the time, it's a series of entries in which the writer is talking to himself. Of course, there is always the conceit of 'Dear Diary', the polite fiction that there is an invisible interlocutor. But let's face it: Dear Diary is a bit like Mr Bean's Teddy – unlikely to give you much lip. By and large, diarists are talking to themselves.
The reason I mention this is that we've just come off the month-long November exercise known as NaJoPoMo. During this month, h2g2 writers commit a journal entry per day. Of course, most of our sneaky h2g2 writers didn't really write a 'Dear Diary'-type journal. Instead, they wrote for the readers, which is really why we do it. After all, we're always aware that we're 'content providers'. But turning to December gives us the opportunity to reflect on the difference between writing for ourselves – as in real diaries – and writing for other people.
When looking over guide entries in Peer Review, I am sometimes struck by the extent to which cultural baggage divides our readership. When writing for the Edited Guide, we keep in mind that not everyone on the World Wide Web is familiar with their cultural backgrounds. We suspect we may not all have watched, and loved, the same TV shows. That we may not eat the same food. And that we may not all be familiar with the same celebrities.
It's not just a matter of interest, although interest plays a part. Assuming that I'm going to get a warm, fuzzy feeling about that British actor who played the ukulele – what was his name? – is not only insulting, but futile. At least, without a lot of set-up and some examples. On the other hand, I doubt if people across the Atlantic have ever heard of Arthur Godfrey. No reason you should have. I don't even recommend that you google him. I wasn't an admirer. I only mentioned him because of the ukulele reference. So, when we talk about these people, we remember to explain.
My point here is that you shouldn't presume on your reader. Because if you do, you're going to lose that reader to someone more understanding. Oh, yes, you're going to rely on the idea that somewhere out there is someone who shares your personal, rarefied taste in everything. Happy hunting, then. Of course, nobody who thinks that reads h2g2. Or writes for it. We're way too savvy for that.. Besides, if we forget, somebody reminds us.
Now, what was I talking about? Oh, yes. Not presuming on the reader. I'd like to show you a clever trick that will pay off – but only if you're willing to entertain the notion that you might want to be reaching out to an audience that has no idea what you're talking about. See, the tricks you need to use to get their attention…
….will work on anybody. That's right. If it works on the ignorant, it will work on the cognoscenti. Play your cards right, and explaining need not be tedious. Instead, the lay-up to an explanation can be a joy in itself. You'll win friends and influence readers.
You want an example, don't you? Of course you do. Here's one:
The gentleman who announced that the world was an oyster which he with his sword would open made a larger hit than he deserved. It is not difficult to open an oyster with a sword. But did you ever notice any one try to open the terrestrial bivalve with a typewriter? Like to wait for a dozen raw opened that way?
Sarah had managed to pry apart the shells with her unhandy weapon far enough to nibble a wee bit at the cold and clammy world within. She knew no more shorthand than if she had been a graduate in stenography just let slip upon the world by a business college. So, not being able to stenog, she could not enter that bright galaxy of office talent. She was a free-lance typewriter and canvassed for odd jobs of copying.
The most brilliant and crowning feat of Sarah's battle with the world was the deal she made with Schulenberg's Home Restaurant. The restaurant was next door to the old red brick in which she ball-roomed. One evening after dining at Schulenberg's 40-cent, five- course table d'hote (served as fast as you throw the five baseballs at the coloured gentleman's head) Sarah took away with her the bill of fare. It was written in an almost unreadable script neither English nor German, and so arranged that if you were not careful you began with a toothpick and rice pudding and ended with soup and the day of the week.
The next day Sarah showed Schulenberg a neat card on which the menu was beautifully typewritten with the viands temptingly marshalled under their right and proper heads from "hors d'oeuvre" to "not responsible for overcoats and umbrellas."
Schulenberg became a naturalised citizen on the spot. Before Sarah left him she had him willingly committed to an agreement. She was to furnish typewritten bills of fare for the twenty-one tables in the restaurant – a new bill for each day's dinner, and new ones for breakfast and lunch as often as changes occurred in the food or as neatness required.
In return for this Schulenberg was to send three meals per diem to Sarah's hall room by a waiter – an obsequious one if possible – and furnish her each afternoon with a pencil draft of what Fate had in store for Schulenberg's customers on the morrow.
O Henry, 'Springtime a la Carte'.
First ask yourself: did I before reading this, know anything at all about the life of a young typist in New York City in 1906? Do I even remember how a typewriter worked? Had it ever occurred to me to wonder how that instrument changed the way media and advertising functioned? What could I have told you about ways to make a living back then?
Now ask yourself: what do I know now? Was this information interesting? Do I want to read the rest of the tale? (Of course you do.) Has my life been enriched by this understanding of the menu business?
If the answer to that last question is 'no', then you'd have to rethink your commitment to writing anything other than an email. Or an entry in your private diary. But of course, you want to know these things. That's why you read, research and write.
Because sharing unfamiliar experiences is what writing is all about. And a writer who doesn't hunger to find this sort of surprise when he's reading, won't think to provide it for others when he's writing.
Diaries are fine. But I'd rather read O Henry. He might tell me something I didn't know. And you know what? Somebody today, more than a hundred years after he wrote that, is learning about what it was like to be a freelance typewriter in 1906. Writing interesting explanations might just win us readers for a long time to come.