How to write for other people, really

Hello again, people! I was on a weeklong vacation – hence the sudden silence – and came back home just in time for some decent snowfall. Here’s a pic I took from my porch on Monday evening.

2016-11-7_view

Really nice to get some snow here, finally. A nice change of pace from the constant late-Autumn semi-darkness we’ve had the privilege of enjoying here, until now.

Anyway, let’s move on to today’s main topic:

Balance in the Context of Blogging

I’ve already written a little bit something about balance here on my blog. Lightly put, balance – in the sense of avoiding most extremes the majority of the time – is kinda important.

Just click on the links for some examples.

But, so far I’ve written exactly frak-all about balance-related issues of writing a blog. That is about to change.

Common. Incorrect.

Probably the most overused piece of non-advice aimed for about-to-be bloggers is to write what people want to read.

“Write what people want to read.” -G.E. Neric,  social media guru.

Seems like a good piece of advice, right?

It’s not!

Well, not really it isn’t. I do understand the sentiment – 80 % of the time I’m not a complete moron. (Let’s not talk about the remaining 20 % just yet.)

But my point still stands:

The advice to write what people want to read is something of an oversimplification, and misleading.

Why it’s Wrong

To illustrate my point, I unleashed both my inner artist and the power of my age-old version of OpenOffice. So, lo’ and behold the awesomeness below!

2016-11-7_venn

As you can see, I made a Venn diagram for the following groups:

  • What people want to read. Pretty self-evident. Stuff people say they want to read.
  • What people should read. Based on my extensive life experience. You’d probably agree, though.
  • What people will read. Again quite simple. Stuff that people will, in fact, read in reality.

Note: by people, I literally do mean humans in general. Including me. I’m not somehow above or beyond my own preaching, going on about those stupid peasants who are not me. So don’t get your knickers in a twist.

Diagram Explained (kinda)

Now, before we get back to blogging, let’s spend a few minutes together, looking at how these three sets intersect and differ.

We’ll start with the easiest one. You see the overlapping area between what people want, and what they should read, is quite big. People are, after all, quite sensible in general. We often want to read things we perceive as high-brow, or civilized. Tolstoi, for example.

Unfortunately, what we usually do end up reading is something we don’t want, and what we really shouldn’t either. Luckily, it’s mostly meaningless stuff. Snippets of text we pick up from ads while walking in the town, et cetera.

However, things get more ominous when we look at what people want and will read, but shouldn’t. And no, I don’t mean widely-shunned yet popular books such as Twilight or 50 whatever here. You like that, go for it.

No, this category is almost the very definition of confirmation bias: whatever confirms our beliefs that we hold oh so dear.

By contrast, we should be doing the exact opposite, studying opposite views to see whether or not our certainties are so certain after all. Unfortunately, this is very often something we neither want nor will do.

And so on. You can probably interpret the remaining areas in the diagram easily enough.

Yaaaaaaaaawn.

So what on Earth does this have to do with blogging?

Well, nothing yet. I just made a (hopefully) funny picture and wanted to rub your faces on it. You’re welcome.

The three main groups (want/should/will) are still valid, though. And maybe now you’ll start to see why simply writing what people want to read is a bad idea.

You can write a really informative educational piece, truly for the betterment of humanity, that is so frigging boring nobody will ever get beyond the first paragraph. Something that people both want and should read, but won’t, that is.

That’s the stupid way. Doesn’t work.

Or, you can scribble some really eloquent and convincing-sounding propaganda. Or some snake oil sales pitch. The Internet is already full of those. And for a good reason, as far as the word “good” applies in this case: it works. It’s something people want to read (for various reasons), and also will. But shouldn’t.

That’s the immoral way. Works, but destroys your soul in the process.

How to Write

All this leaves us with two options, at least if we want to keep the moral high ground.

We have to write something people both will and should read.

1) The best way to achieve this is to simply hit the bullseye of the above Venn diagram, and write something people want, will, and should read.

That kind of content gets a lot of shares. It simply works.

It’s also probably the hardest one to actually manage. Everything has to be spot-on.

2) Or, we can simply content ourselves with the will and should. Don’t give a damn what your readers want; simply supply them with information that is simply too good to ignore.

Incidentally, much of research papers fall into this category. As does most plainly-informative text: software documentation, manuals, commonly-needed legal information… The list goes on and on.

Conclusion

  • Aiming to write what people want to read is too simplistic.
  • Write what people both will and should read instead.
    • Them wanting to read your text is a nice plus, too.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

-Antti


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How to Write: Where Everyone Goes Wrong

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