Think about your favorite book, newspaper article, or any writing that really stands out to you. What is it that you remember? It’s probably not a bunch of symbols on page or the smell and texture of the paper and ink. What you likely remember are images that are precious to you, the feeling and mood that is in your mind alone. How did that get there?
The internet has produced, if nothing else, a lot of writing. Every blog, tweet, or webpage is nothing more than an attempt to communicate using written language. The best writing, however, has a deeper understanding of its reader – an appreciation of the process of reading and how symbols on a page are turned into language and then into images.
It’s basically the same as writing, which is to say that reading is writing and writing is reading.
If I want to tell you about a dry subject, like the developing Depression, I won’t start with a lot of facts and figures. I’ll tell you about people who are struggling with the problem and what it must be like to be caught up in the problem. If I was a journalist, I’d use an interview, but I can ask you to imagine losing your job and face the problem head on. What matters is that when the reader translates the bits on a page, they are writing their own image around the details I’ve given and the details I’ve left out. Unemployment is a statistic, but the unemployed are people; if I have you focused on that, you’ll remember it.
That’s not to say writing should be devoid of facts to be effective. However, there has to be a context where they make sense if it’s going to stick. The readers have to have enough information that they can create the image as surely as if they were writing their own article on the subject.
If the medium is audio, the problems are similar but the application is very different. Radio and podcasts are very immediate, getting deep into people’s minds with very little effort. You have to compel the listener to put the additional effort into the story that it takes to form an image that they will never forget. That’s why “This American Life”, the very best at doing this, uses so much eerie and repetitive music; they effectively engage the subconscious directly. That’s the power of radio.
Video presents its own problems, and I’m far from an expert on the topic. It’s difficult to get the imagination of your viewer engaged when you are throwing images at them. The best movies invite you to piece together what’s going on yourself, putting yourself into the action. Shorter videos on the internet seem to be a more difficult problem, but I’m sure it’s still possible.
Good writing is like any other medium where you are trying to get your point across, even if the demands being placed on the reader are a bit more than other forms. You need to use the process to your advantage, helping your reader create their own images more than dictating exactly what you want in their head. Even technical writing can be helped by this understanding, building the facts gradually and carefully in a way that walks the reader along the path rather than driving them straight to the end.
Because reading is writing, writing ultimately is reading. You and the reader are bridging the spaces inbetween you. If you are sitting at your keyboard at 3 AM with an empty bottle of scotch and a full ashtray, you may want to be careful what you are saying. Your reader might write that into the image of you and your topic, and they may not like it all that much.