T=Talk to Me (Feb 21)

The only prescription . . . // Saturday Night Live

As a writer, it’s often what you say.  More often it is the way you say it.

Here’s a secret that good writers know: writing is a conversation.  Different conversations flow in different ways.

For an academic audience, your purpose is to spark a discussion.  Maybe you want them to engage with a topic.  Perhaps you want them to understand an experiment.  If they have a technical background, you can use more technical terms.  You can use more Latin-based words and higher-level vocabulary for an academic audience.  They can follow it. 

An audience looking to laugh needs to be in the moment.  Give them the experience via the five senses.  Paint pictures with words.  Perhaps use more visceral vocabulary as well.

In a sense, you serve two masters in a conversation.  One is explicit, the other a whisper of your will from inside.  The two work together. 

Respect your audience (but remember why you picked up the pen or sat at the keyboard).  Are you writing to inform or persuade?  Is there a ‘reveal’ in what you want to say?  Are you writing to give bad news, good news, or simply to show why something is funny?  For each of these, there is a way to arrange the information so the conversation flows.

Take something as everyday as an e-mail.  A good e-mail has three main parts: (1) what happened before; (2) what you want now . . . and (3) what you expect of your reader in the future.

The way you express research is different.  First, you give a literature review, careful to state the ideas that led to this moment while also showing how each previous piece of research has its limit, a hole (that your research seeks to fill).  Second, provide the research at hand- each action of an experiment in sequence.  Finally, you will review the conclusions of the experiment, glean truth from it, and suggest the way forward.

Some may say jokes are as easy as premise and set-up and punchline, but each joke has its own internal way of speaking.  A deep dive by Alastair Clarke of The Telegraph reveals no less than eight ways of delivering a joke.  One example is the kind of positive repetition seen in  the Saturday Night Live sketch, where Christopher Walken declares, repeatedly, “I gotta have more cowbell”.  A second one comes from proportion, where the comic can make something small into a big thing (or its opposite).  Often a laugh comes from completion as the audience has to guess at, imagine, or complete a phrase or scenario.  The adage “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink”  doesn’t apply to comedy.  A good comic gets us to complete the phrase – to drink the water. 

In each case, the audience only “gets it” because of the way you say it – they are in on the conversation. 

LEARN: Choose one piece of writing.  Better yet, pick something you want to write but haven’t yet.   Arrange it in your head.  How can you talk to the audience in a way they can understand?

USE: Here’s a link to chapter 1 of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. His audience was the Russian upper middle class of the 19th century.  Now, rewrite the first three paragraphs for the people you work with. 


Published by robanderik

We are long-time writers and editors, now living in the Middle East. Our idea is to create a series of tips to help others improve their writing and editing skills. Think of it as a lesson plan for ESL learners that combines the practical with the aspirational.

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