Writing Right with Dmitri: Pheromone Control

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Pheromone Control

Editor at work.
'Pheromone control', he said it was. 'You just have to know how to generate the right smell.'

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Pheromone control: the art of smelling good. Ford Prefect used it to hunt on prehistoric Earth. Your author here used to use something similar to sell cookware. It involved wafting roasting, garlic-scented meat across the department store. They'd drift over for the free samples. Sold a lot of stove-top grilles that way.

What does that have to do with writing, pray tell? Children, I am going to tell you a shocking secret:

Guide Entries are NOT inherently interesting.

No, my friends, no matter how much you believe that your subject is irresistible, they can resist. And they do. Trust me on this.

No matter WHAT you're writing about: constellations, World War II, Elvis, the ever-fascinating Isle of Wight, last night's mouth-watering casserole (oh, that we had olfactory settings on our computers!), the Beatles…

It's not going to pull them in…unless it smells good.

What am I talking about?

Guide Entries involve learning on the part of the reader. Pleasant learning? Yes, we hope so. But if the information isn't new to them, it probably isn't worthwhile. On the other hand, getting people to want to acquire new information voluntarily – without there being a test or certificate at the end of it – is work. Therein lies the paradox.

I'm writing this rant, you know, because I do not want to see Guide Entries that start in the middle. What do I mean by starting in the middle? Try this:

To get from London to Brightling, you should first take a Number 10 bus.

Don't bother looking it up. I just made it up, and I have no idea where the Number 10 bus goes, so there. I'm using an example to show how not to start a Guide Entry. It's going to tell us how to travel from London to Brightling, I can tell. But that's NOT where to start. First, you've got to tell me why I want to go to Brightling. Because Nigel lives there? Oh, sure, cool. He's a hoopy frood, and I want his autograph. But you've got to do more than that to get me to read this Guide Entry.

You've got to get my attention. Or I won't read it. Nope, will not. Can't be bovvered. Will pass it by. Oh, you think I should feel obligated to read it? Because it's you who wrote it?

How many people do you think that works on? Hm?

Notice the title of this article. We're going to make the Guide Entry smell good.

So How Do I Get Someone to Read a Guide Entry?

Here are some ways to make your Guide Entry smell good. These are not suggestions. These are actual things you need to do so that people will voluntarily (i.e., without being forced at gunpoint) read your Guide Entry:

  • Give it a title that not only tells the reader what's in the Entry, but piques their interest. No fair doing one or the other.
  • Write an introductory paragraph – these are NOT optional! – that makes the story sound interesting. 'This Entry is about, blah, blah…' is not a proper introduction. Nor is a definition, unless you've used it in an unusual way.
  • Organise the material in a way that is not only logical, but keeps the reader's interest level up. Do not assume that, once you have their attention, they are a captive audience. They can and will wander off as soon as you become boring. You think you're fascinating? Think again. Others get bored long before you do. To test the material, read it aloud to your cat. No, of course the cat will yawn. But listen to yourself. Think, If I hadn't written this, would I read it?
  • Use humour when you can. Not in an inappropriate way, of course, but some levity in each paragraph or two, when possible, will keep them reading. If they come to expect it, they'll read on – and absorb the information at the same time.
  • If the subject isn't funny at all, such as a plague or catastrophe, use emotion. No, don't write like the Daily Mail. (I think it violates the House Rule against spitting.) But don't be dry. Apply appropriate feeling. The warmer the writing, the more interesting it will be.
  • Be generous with your reader. Share what you know. Share only the interesting bits.
  • Keep it as BRIEF as possible. Yes, 2000 words may, indeed, be as brief as possible. But don't you dare drone on and on and on about something for the sake of 'completeness'. The Edited Guide is not an encyclopaedia. Only nerds worry about completeness. Leave those tables out. Don't cover everything. Cover only what is germane.
  • Add the good extras instead: the clever quip, the out-of-the-way factoid that anybody would be dying to know about. At the end of your Entry, give links for further information. (Make sure they're safe.) By letting readers in on where to find out more, you're being generous again.

See? By writing in a clear, interesting, generous manner, you not only enhance the Edited Guide, but you insure that readers will see your username and exclaim, 'Oh, boy! That's the Entry I want to read!'

It's all a matter of pheromone control. Move that fan over behind the grille, please…just a little more…ah, what a heavenly aroma.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

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