Many people have heard of the six questions that a newspaper reporter is always supposed to ask when writing an article: who, what, when, where, why and how. It turns out that those six questions apply to most forms of writing at some level. For example, when I write an article about a new technology, I might write these questions to myself as part of my preparation:
- Who will use the technology?
- Who will implement the technology?
- What problem does the technology solve?
- When is this solution used?
- When it is important to avoid using this solution?
- Where will the reader use this technology?
- Where does the reader obtain the technology?
- Why is this technology important?
- Why will the reader want to use it?
- How does the reader implement the solution presented by this technology?
My list is probably a lot longer that this one, but this is a good sample. I might fill the better part of an hour (or more) coming up with questions about the technology I want to discuss. When writing a book, I can usually come up with several hundred questions that describe issues the book should consider answering. This process of asking the six questions is important because you won’t think about the question if you simply start writing. Even if you have a great outline and terrific editors, the thought process involved in writing these questions is different from any other thought process involved in writing. Once you get into the question asking mode, you’ll discover that you’ll come up with all sorts of questions that you would never have asked otherwise.
Your list will probably end up being too long. My list usually ends up that way. At some point, you need to pare down the list to the important questions—the questions your reader is most likely to ask. The problem is that most authors are authorities on the topic they write about and most readers aren’t. The author must think critically about the questions. An assumption that a question is too simple can be wrong. Likewise, if you expend precious space writing about a topic the reader already knows, you’ll run out of space to discuss the issues the reader really wanted to know about.
I’ve read about the fallacy of the unlimited space offered by the Internet, so that it’s impossible to run out of space for an article. From a certain perspective, that’s true. You literally can make anything you write as long as you want. The problem is that no one will read the piece if it’s too long, so the time is wasted. If anything, your space when writing electronically is more limited than the space offered by a printed book. I’ve been learning the hard way that readers of electronic media have a shorter attention span than those reading print media. So, paring down that list of questions is important.
Roleplaying is an author’s most important tool in this situation. You can create a profile of your reader, determine how your reader thinks, what your reader needs. I actually consider it one of the better parts of the creative process involved in writing an article or a book. You can base your role on conversations you see online, e-mail that you receive, conversations you have with your readers, and external sources of reader information (such as marketing materials). The use of roleplaying makes it possible for you to see things from your reader’s perspective and eliminate the questions that you really don’t need to answer.
Asking questions, the right questions, will make your writing robust and enjoyable. Readers will get the information needed in the shortest possible time. More importantly, the reader’s questions are answered completely when you ask the right questions. What sorts of other techniques do you use to write with gusto? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.