Discerning the Use of the Six Questions in Writing

In a previous post, Creating the Useful Sidebar, I discussed the need for emotion in any book, even technical books. It’s not possible to convey information in a manner that helps a reader understand the technology without including emotion. Facts alone are available in many places on the Internet—what a smart author wants to convey is the emotion behind the facts. Of course, this means adding bias in the form of your perspective on the topic.

Most people know the six questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Newspaper authors stress the questions, but anyone who writes technical (non-fiction) materials must consider them as well. They’re good questions. However, most treatise on the topic look at the questions from a factual perspective—what you need to do to answer them and why they’re important. In some respects, it’s better to look at the effect and orientation of the six questions, rather than their factual nature.

The four fact questions are: who, what, when, and where. If you answer these four questions in any piece you write, you have covered the facts. Your writing will likely be as dry and entertaining as the Sahara, but no one will be able to argue that you’ve covered the essentials—the bare minimum. The best authors aren’t happy with just the bare minimum.

The question of how is a slightly emotional question. It not only covers facts, but it also covers some of the emotion behind the facts because you’re presenting a view of the facts. In your (or possibly an expert’s) opinion, this is how the other facts fall into place. For example, a procedure on how to perform a task using a piece of software is your opinion on how to get the job done. Rarely is there a time when your method is the only available method. You discuss how based on your experience. Likewise, looking at the historical context of an event, the how often views the event from the viewpoint of the historian who researched the process, rather than providing a precise and infinitely detailed discussion. A historian could quite well leave out steps in order to streamline the process (to make it easier to understand) or to convey a specific view (in order to support bias).

When looking at the question of why, you enter the territory of pure emotion. It’s impossible to ascertain a factual why, no matter what sort of writing you do. Even addressing the why behind the reason to perform a particular task in a specific matter is based solely on the author’s opinion and is therefore ultimately biased. The why of a situation, any situation, tends to change with time. As an author gains knowledge (facts), experience (knowing how to apply the facts), and wisdom (knowing when to apply the facts) the question of why changes. In addition, memory, perspective, and all sorts of other environmental considerations affect the interplay of emotions that answer the question of why. In fact, you may encounter situations where even the entity that is the focus of why has no idea of why and you must create your own answer to the question.

Great writing revolves around the six questions. The first four are easy, the fifth is a bit harder, but to answer the sixth requires time, focus, and commitment. Let me know your thoughts about the six questions at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.