One of my editing clients asked me recently how he could improve his technical writing skills. I told him I would think about it and get back to him with an answer.
Because my client is British and lives in the UK, it was only natural for my thoughts to turn to Shakespeare!
What did Shakespeare know that can help us improve our writing skills? Even if we write prosaic technical prose instead of passionate dramas?
Shakespeare understood the architecture of a story
What do I mean by this?
At the most basic level, EVERY piece of writing requires a beginning, a middle, and an ending. The beginning needs to draw people into your writing and intrigue them enough that they want to keep reading.
The middle needs to tell the basic parts of your story in some kind of logical order so that your readers can follow your ideas easily and understand them without great effort. And the ending needs to tie up loose ends and bring your story to a satisfactory conclusion.
In other words, your writing needs to be well organized!
It should not start with one point, go to another, come back to the first, throw in a couple of new ideas (just because), and repeat itself a few times for good measure. It should start with a major idea…state it clearly, powerfully and succinctly…and then move on to the next logical idea and do the same thing.
Granted, different kinds of writing are built around different kinds of organization, but they all follow a pattern of some kind.
Your goal as a writer is to understand the architecture that your audience expects and follow it.
This leads us naturally to my second major observation:
Shakespeare understood his audience
Shakespeare knew his audience intimately.
The plus for him was that he could hear their shouts of laughter, watch the tears streak down their cheeks, and revel in their applause. On the downside, he could also be pelted with their shoes, rotten apples and groans of derision when they disapproved!
To move his audience, Shakespeare drew on vocabulary, metaphors and themes his listeners understood.
In other words, he didn’t write his plays in French because his audience spoke English. He didn’t use metaphors about the Onandaga Indians in the New World colony of New York because his audience would not have understood them.
He also made sure that each word moved his story further along and painted pictures in the minds of his listeners. To do so, he used concrete details; strong, active verbs; and driving rhythms that added color and energy to his story.
And, of course, he infused his stories with emotion to such an extent that his audiences felt what his characters felt and related their trials, tribulations and triumphs to experiences in their own lives.
What can you learn from this?
You MUST know who your target audience is before you begin to write.
Your audience guides your use of vocabulary, terms and concepts. If they are unlikely to understand an acronym (because they are from Nigeria, not from England) write out all of the words; if they are unlikely to understand a term that is only applicable to the UK, be sure to explain it fully.
It is also important to use clear, succinct, concrete words instead of vague concepts and generalizations. Make sure each word counts; if it doesn’t add anything, eliminate it!
And don’t be afraid to use emotion. What is the nature of the problem you are addressing? How does it affect real people (maybe even you and your family)? What would the consequences be to them if this problem is not resolved adequately?
Shakespeare shows us that the most effective writing:
- Shows readers how a specific topic relates to them and why they should care about it.
- Presents the details and events using the type of organization the piece requires.
- Eliminates unnecessary words and redundant concepts.
- Uses concrete vocabulary and active verbs that paint pictures in readers’ minds and give energy and rhythm to the story.
What do you think?
What other skills and knowledge did Shakespeare have that can help us improve our ability to write effective technical communications?