Good Intentions

(Original post: http://blogs.officezealot.com/spiller/archive/2005/06/15/5218.aspx)

In the classical musical world, we talk about intention all the time. Did the composer mean to be reverent, celebratory, contemplative, angry—in short, what is the composer trying to convey? A composer uses many tools to get a certain message across and it’s the duty of the performers and conductors to figure out where the music is headed and what the composer intended so that the listener can respond.

 

Music without lyrics can be subject to wild diversity of interpretation, so it’s important for the performers to agree on the intention of the composer (or the conductor’s interpretation) in order to produce a cohesive performance. Music with lyrics is much easier to decipher because the text itself provides most of the information. Text is the great intention clarifier.

 

You can see that it’s even simpler when you only provide the text without the melody, as you who write technical text know. Oh, you still have emphasis and other subjective aspects to play around with, but words are the medium through which your intention is conveyed.

 

For your readers to follow along, you have to decide where you intend to take them before you begin to write. Outlining is the most obvious way to prevent wandering or unintentional (or non-directional) writing, but if you’re writing a quick little blog entry or you just can’t wrap your head around outlining, pause for a moment to put the intention of your piece into one succinct thought. Name your audience and the broadest topic of your piece.

 

Imagine that your task is to expose the details of adaptation tools in a new release of the now infamous Purple People Plotter. First, you need to establish who your audience is. Here are some possibilities:

 

  • Developers who either already know previous incarnations of Purple People Plotters or are familiar with similar products
  • Users and neophytes who must produce output but don’t need to know how it works
  • Managers who need to know enough about productivity improvements to justify the expense of upgrading

Each of these readers is quite different, but when you begin your writing task, you don’t want to completely exclude those for whom the piece is not a perfect match. That’s the trick.

 

In some cases, you can just declare your audience (MSDN articles often provide a venue for saying what products or level of previous understanding is required, for instance) and let your audience choose whether or not to proceed on their own. But most of the time, you have to find a polite way to limit your audience.

 

With limiting your audience in mind, let’s get back to intention. If your intention is to reveal hitherto secret aspects of Purple People Plotters, or perhaps even the downside of a new version, all three audiences are still relevant. (There are more variations of audience types, of course. I’m using three obvious ones to simplify the discussion. You can find out more about identifying your audience in my April 2004 blog, “Identifying your Audience.”) The challenge is to declare your intention so that readers recognize themselves and make a subjective choice about continuing.

 

Okay, first you can assume a basic interest in the general subject. People don’t show up at a Bach concert expecting to hear Green Day. If you’ve titled your piece in such a way that the general subject is revealed, you’ve already attracted or repelled accordingly.

 

Now you’ve got to find a clever way to say who your intended specific audience is and focus on conveying the intention of the piece. Let’s look at a few examples.

  • Purple People Plotters have released a new version with greatly enhanced adaptation tools for developing third-party tools.
  • Changing from Violet to Lavender adaptation settings is simple using the latest release of Purple People Plotters.
  • Developers and end users alike will find astounding productivity and intuitive interfaces on the Purple People Plotters release, hot off the burners in January 2005.

There are several intention-revealing devices in each of these examples.

 

The first example names the audience by saying “developing” and tells us what specific aspect of the product will be examined. It’s active voice in the past tense, which tells us that we can rush right out and get it (something this audience probably already knows), and it tells us that it can be used as is or customized.

 

The second example names a simple specific task. When addressing users and neophytes, you need to make sure that your piece doesn’t sound complicated and that it sounds very specific. It’s true that specificity might limit the audience a little, but your intention is to invite nervous readers in, so that’s okay. It’s a present tense sentence, and active voice, which always seems more enthusiastic than past tense or passive voice. The important thing here is not to pack the first sentence with too much information. It’s much better to use short and specific sentences for easily intimidated audiences, especially if you’re used to living in Developer Land.

 

The final example is marketing language. It’s passive voice (marketing people love that, apparently), it uses adjectives and buzz words, and it tries to be all things to all people.

 

There are lots of other ideas to play with, but I think you get my intention. Now let’s turn to the rest of the piece.

 

Let’s say that you took the time to outline. Examine your outline for intention and audience by seeing whether each major heading answers the demands of your initial declaration of audience. You can work with each area of coverage the same way I did with opening sentences, by directing the language and the coverage at a specific group.

 

Developers, for instance, need to know the details of any down side so they can choose the right tools for their tasks. Managers need to know that there are down sides and if there are work-arounds, but users really only want to know what the product does, not what it doesn’t do. Developers are seldom completely fooled by marketing hyperbole and need to see whether there are advantages to trying this new thing. Developers are the most likely audience to try something just because it’s new, with no clear practical application for the product in mind, so some marketing language is appropriate just to draw them in. But keep it to a minimum if you want to get a reputation for clear and incisive writing.

 

Users and neophytes find it difficult to understand how the product is relevant to them if there’s a lot of developer language or elliptical marketing fluff. You need to be the most direct when your readers are at this basic level.

 

Wielding text with intention is the key to writing succinctly, whether you’re writing fiction, marketing copy, newspaper ads, or highly technical articles or books. Let’s look at fiction a little bit, just for fun, and because it may more graphically illustrate what I mean.

 

Let’s say you’re writing a murder mystery. The intention of your project might be any or all of these:

  • To entertain your readers
  • To surprise or fascinate your readers in a new way
  • To teach or show your readers something

 If your intention is to entertain, you really need to identify your audience. Someone who laughs at the Three Stooges probably won’t laugh at Dave Barry, and vice versa. People who want to be surprised come in different flavors too; some like to be led to the Happy Place and then have a bucket of blood thrown on them, and others like to have all the facts placed before them so they can solve the problem themselves. If you want to teach or show something, you just have to be very clear about what that is and how you’re going to get there because you probably also want to meet the other two intentions while you’re at it.

 

It might be possible to be all things to all people in fiction, although I’ve read a lot of fiction and haven’t really seen that. I’ve also read a lot of highly technical material, and I’m very sure that you have to be as narrow as possible in both your audience definition and your intention if you want to keep your audience engaged through to the end.

 

 

You can find these blogs, a little information about my editorial services and me, and a collection of pages about my “real” life on my Web site, www.MelanieSpiller.com.

Posted: June 15th, 2005, 4:19am CEST by Melanie Spiller

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