Famous Last Words : Always Think of Your ReaderJanuary 2013 By Denny Hatch
I watched Charles Osgood interview Welsh author Ken Follett on PBS the other day. A world-renowned writer once asked Follett if he thought about the reader when he was writing. Follett said he thought about the reader all the time. Constantly.
In response, the famous author said, "I never think of the reader. I always write for myself."
"That's why you are a very great author," Follett said. "And why I'm a very rich author."
I keep seeing prose by writers, authors, business folks and academics that write for themselves and not their readers.
So, once again, I have restarted work on the manuscript of a book that's been languishing in my computer for several years: "WRITE IT RIGHT: What Authors Can Learn From the Great Copywriters."
A Huge Disappointment
Back in the summer of 2008, I came across a review in The Wall Street Journal of "Tupperware Unsealed: Brownie Wise, Earl Tupper, and the Home Party Pioneers."
I was intensely interested. Here was the genesis of a revolutionary marketing technique—the Tupperware party, where (mostly) women would get together in a home and a sales rep would demonstrate plastic food containers, take orders and give the hostess a commission or thank-you gift. Who dreamed it up? What were the thought processes, the trials and the errors that went into the final business model that became a sensation?
I eagerly dug into the review by Mark Lasswell, deputy books editor of the WSJ, and quickly discovered that he boiled the contents of the book down to 1,057 words, telling the reader the entire story from beginning to the very sad ending. I knew exactly what was in the book and no longer had any reason to buy it. Lasswell had screwed me out of a reading experience, screwed the author out a royalty payment and screwed the publisher—University Press of Florida—out of a sale. This was the classic lazy man's way to fill a newspaper column—take somebody else's stuff, retell it, add nothing to the mix and feel immensely pleased that he's done a good day's work.
What could Lasswell have brought to the party instead of a rehash? I probably would have called this a revolutionary new merchandising concept and a fascinating narrative. I would have given the reader a quick background in marketing: the Greek agora, barter, door-to-door, off-the-page-advertising, retail, direct mail, M-L-M, midway pitchmen, TV etc. Something—anything—to enhance the reading experience.
In terms of "WRITE IT RIGHT," Lasswell is a writer who breaks the basic rules and doesn't give a damn about the reader. For example, from a post by colleague Scott Huch:
As an aspiring, young direct mail copywriter in the early 1990s, I clipped an item from my local newspaper. It has been taped to my desk—right next to my computer—ever since. It is now tattered and yellow. But I keep it there as a reminder anytime I'm writing. It says: "Tests have shown that a sentence of eight words is very easy to read; of 11 words, easy; of 14 words, fairly easy; of 17 words, standard; of 21 words, fairly difficult; of 25 words, difficult; of 29 or more words, very difficult; so this sentence with 54 words, counting numbers, is ranked impossible.
From Mark Lasswell's review is this mind-numbing 58-word sentence:
As journalist Bob Kealing recounts in "Tupperware Unsealed"—his vivid portrait of Tupperware's origins and of the little-remembered woman behind its remarkable selling strategy—Earl Tupper spent months working with polyethylene, heating it, pressurizing it and mixing in additives, hoping to convert it into a plastic that was more flexible than the brittle styrene products then in use.
Here are a few more bits of wisdom—from me and others—on how to keep your reader front of mind:
- Whatever you write—a review, memo, special report, letter or article—always keep the reader in mind.
- A rehash won't cut it. If you want to make an impression, come up with some enriching original content.
- "Use short words, short sentences, short paragraphs." —Andrew Byrne, copywriter
- "[Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary." —William Faulkner
- "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use." —Ernest Hemingway
Denny Hatch is a direct marketing copywriter, designer, consultant and the author of six books on marketing, "CAREER-CHANGING TAKEAWAYS" being the most recent. Visit him at dennyhatch.com, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.