This is part two of a five-part series.
In the previous article, I began a detailed examination of what makes writing flow. The most important thing to understand about flow is that it results from looking at your writing from your reader’s perspective.
This exhortation – to look at things from the reader’s perspective rather than your own – seems obvious to the point of truism. By definition, writers write and readers read. Thus, if you’re writing at all, you’re writing for readers, right? Wrong.
The default position for a writer is writing for himself or herself. It can be an uncomfortable process akin to an out-of-body experience to pull yourself out of your own perspective and look at things from your reader’s viewpoint. The more you try to do it, however, the more flexible your perspective will become.
How do details contribute to flow? Providing an appropriate amount of detail helps to clarify the conceptual ligatures that bind your writing together.
Imagine a piece of persuasive writing: a blog post supporting a particular political candidate, or a history paper analyzing the causes of the Protestant Reformation in England. Each assertion you provide must be accompanied by evidence to support it. If you are arguing, for example, that a particular political candidate has a sound economic plan, then you should back that assertion up with details about what policies he or she has proposed. In a persuasive piece, however, you must go further. To ensure that the reader follows your logic, you must also explain how the details you have provided connect with your original assertion. Returning to the political blog posting example, you would need to explain how the candidate’s policies (the details) prove that the candidate has a sound economic plan (the assertion).
Why must you go to all of this trouble? In a piece with a persuasive purpose, you are writing to readers who do not agree with your viewpoint. (This is not to say that people who do agree with you can’t read your work. They can, but since they don’t need to be persuaded, you won’t have them in mind when writing.) Readers who do not agree with you are not going to give you the benefit of the doubt. They don’t owe you anything…they are giving you enough of a gift by giving you a chance to make your point. It is your responsibility to change their viewpoint, not theirs.
This means that you must evaluate each and every statement you make to decide whether the reader will accept it as valid. Are you giving the reader everything he or she needs to understand your viewpoint? Have you made every logical connection explicit? Remember, since the reader doesn’t share your viewpoint, chances are he or she won’t share the assumptions that underpin your viewpoint’s logic. Bring your reasoning to the surface by providing details and explanation.
Now let’s consider an informative piece, like a description of a process or a set of instructions. As a writer, you’re usually writing an informative piece because you’re comfortable with the information. But consider why your reader is reading this piece: it is not because he or she does know the information. Rather, it is because he or she does not know the information. Stepping into your reader’s shoes will help you provide an increased level of detail, which will enhance understanding.
How do you remind yourself what readers need to know? To get a good idea, perform a user test. Give the piece to someone unfamiliar with your topic, and ask them to explain it back to you after reading it. If they can, it means that the piece is detailed. At first, don’t be surprised if the readers don’t “get it.” They probably don’t get it because you have not provided all the details they need.
The user test is useful in two ways. First, it points out where you need more detail to enhance understanding. Second, and perhaps more important, a user test helps you see how different your reader’s perspective can be, and it helps you to imagine your audience more effectively.
Last but not least: when in doubt, add detail. In my experience, if a writer is wondering whether something needs more detail, the answer is yes.