by Daphne Gray-Grant
Five ways to connect the dots when you write.
When I was a little kid I used to love those colouring books that were blank except for a sprinkling of numbers on the page. You'd locate the number 1, take your pencil and carefully draw a line to number 2. Then you'd advance to 3, 4, 5 and so on. And when you'd finally connected all the dots, a picture would emerge. For a six-year-old, pure magic!
But connect-the-dots isn't just a game for kids. It's also a metaphor for the mind-set you should adopt when you write. It means asking yourself: Is my writing clear enough? Will readers get my point? Is my reasoning unambiguous? In other words, have I adequately connected the dots? Here's a five-item checklist to help you find out:
1) Have I explained my anecdotes?
I always encourage people to make their writing more interesting by weaving in stories, examples and anecdotes. But when you do, you need to make sure your readers understand the point. In the anecdote that launched this newsletter, for example, I used a bridging sentence ("connect-the-dots isn't just a game for kids") to make the association clear. You can also sometimes do this with a single word such as: "similarly" or "likewise."
2) Are my metaphors instantly understandable?
Speaker and trainer Anne Miller in her marvelous book "Metaphorically Selling" notes that people sometimes fail to explain their metaphors fully. Here's her example: "This continuous downsizing is corporate anorexia." A bit abstruse, right? But add another sentence and the metaphor suddenly packs a much bigger punch: "This continuous downsizing -- it's corporate anorexia. You can get thin, but it's no way to get healthy."
3) Is my teaser line not just memorable but also effective?
A colleague wrote to me recently telling me about a billboard he spotted on the road. It read, in very large type: "Spaaaah!" His question: "So, did the ad work or not?" My answer: "What the heck does spaaaah mean?" Is it a product? Is it a service (a spa, perhaps?) We'll never know because the billboard didn't connect the dots. In other words, no, it didn’t work!
4) Have I introduced my quotes?
This is a fine but important point understood intuitively by journalists but sometimes missed by other writers. When you quote someone, you should introduce or set up the comments. This helps integrate another "voice" into the writing, making it easier for your readers to understand. Here's an example: Vice-President Marie Jones says that XYZ company urgently needs to improve its safety record. "I'm terrified we're going to have a fatality here," she says.
5) Have I summarized my main point? In everything you write you should have a point and it should be stated explicitly. For speeches and reports, this summary needs to be upfront. With other types of writing you have more flexibility with positioning -- but the summary needs to be there, somewhere. Don't give a bunch of disjointed facts and expect your readers to come to their own conclusions. Help them see the world through your eyes. After all, that's what writing is all about – right?
A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8 1⁄2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. It's brief. It's smart. And it's free.