The art of staying on message

One of the hardest things for new writers to master is to determine what their key message is and then to convey that message in a clear and precise way in their written products. These budding authors think long and hard about their general themes, research their topics thoroughly, and pull together an impressive array of information to support their theses.

The challenge is that they sometimes fall so much in love with all the details they’ve uncovered that they lose sight of the main purpose of their writing — namely, to convey a clear and precise message to their readers.  From their perspective, if the reader is interested in the topic at hand, why, shouldn’t that same reader also be interested in all the little nitty-gritty details related to that topic?

In editing such drafts, where everything but the kitchen sink has been thrown in, it’s all too easy for me as the reviewer to get mired in the details, even on topics that I know a great deal about.  I find myself reading the draft through, then re-reading it — even sometimes reading it again for a third time — just to figure out what the main point is.  Sometimes I can sort through all the verbiage and find a core (though obscured) theme, but many times I can’t.  The line of argumentation seems to meander here and there, drifting first down this path and then down another, wrapping up with no clear conclusion or message.

My advice to these writers is always the same:  Don’t force your reader to work so hard at figuring out what your point is.  Don’t make them try to get inside your head to know what is important, what is merely interesting, and what is a factoid that should never have been in the draft in the first place.

This is true, regardless of whether one is writing non-fiction or whether one is writing a novel or short story.  Readers like stories.  They can be factual stories about real things, places, and people.  They can be pure fiction, a story about people who never, ever even existed.  But the best writing always, always has a clear storyline from start to finish.

As writers, we can make sure that we’re on the path to a good story by taking time at the outset, before pen ever hits paper (or, in the modern age, before fingers ever tap on a computer keyboard) to think through what it is that we want to say, what message it is that we want to convey.

Early in my career, one of my managers always insisted that we come to his office before making a formal presentation to a larger group or an important customer and tell him in no more than two to three sentences what the main point of our presentation was going to be.  At first, I hated having to do this and thought it rather pointless.  After all, I was being paid to research, think, and then write about (or make a presentation on) whatever topic I’d been working on.  Shouldn’t I be trusted to know what was important to convey and what wasn’t?

But over time and with experience, I came to see that he was absolutely right.  He was right because the act of laying out my key message in two or three simple sentences forced a certain discipline and structure on my presentation.  This framework helped me know what facts and evidence were important to my thesis and which were interesting but unnecessary, even irrelevant, to my core message.

This same approach can be very helpful in writing.  If we take the time to define what it is that we want to say and actually write that down on a card or slip of paper, it can transform our writing by helping us focus on our core message.  And it is that clear message and story that will pull our readers along and keep them engaged and open to what we’re saying to them — and, ultimately, coming back for more.

Cheers, and happy writing!

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