Writing Is Service

The one person who I think taught me the most about writing was as much a businessman as he was a writer. My first employer after college, he was the owner of a small public relations firm who had spent his career at this firm’s helm. He didn’t teach me about writing as expression; I already had that. I was full of that. He taught me about writing as service. In our case, that meant service to the client or customer, but it also proved to mean service to the reader. 

[About this piece: I am exploring 10 or so simple mottoes that have helped me as a writer. Here is the preceding post in this series.]

Among other things, he taught me about paragraphs. The paragraph is writing’s most basic unit (setting aside writing done in scenes or stanzas), and to write effectively is to use paragraphs well. But my paragraphs back then were selfish. They often became instruments for the full expansiveness of all I might say on an idea and the course I might take to say it. In his editing of my work, he showed me how we could write short paragraphs instead—how short paragraphs can be complete and correct, and how, once the eye accepts this, they look just fine on the page. Rather than paragraphs being twenty lines or so, many might be just four. One way to get to this is to make harsh choices about what to include in each paragraph. Another way is to take the elaborate and nuanced idea and break it into a sequence of simpler ideas that can each be stated more clearly.

In other words, consider the reader. Make the piece easier to read. Becoming attentive to this priority produced the most meaningful change my writing has ever undergone. It changed my sense of how a passage of writing ought to feel and my expectation for what a completed work must do, all because of the change in my understanding of what writing is for. The point of writing is the reader. Writing exists for my own expression only in cases in which I don’t expect a reader—a diary, perhaps. Other than this, the writing exists for the sake of what the reader might obtain from it, and part of the task before me is to step down out of the heights of all I might say into the alleys and avenues of carrying the message to its recipient. 

Writing is service. This step down into humility is simultaneously a step up into power and confidence as a writer, because the very reason to do the work, the very reason I want to do the work, is found in my sense of the value for the reader—if only I can get this stranger to receive the full merit and meaning of the message I think I have it in me to convey.

Diamonds in the Rough ... Draft
The whole point is the reader. You would think this would be obvious, and in retrospect it is, but writers who are growing their craft follow journeys to arrive at the fullness of this realization. The earlier, easier assumption for the would-be writer is that the reader is a given, the audience is a given, and the interested recipient is already out there hungry for the work—meaning the obligation is on the reader to do the work to read and understand. Under the spell of this assumption, the work slips easily into becoming a flex, the writer spilling prose in exhibition of her capacity to do so. By contrast, the attention to writing as service secures its value. It is service to various things (read on; I’ll name them), but it is service over all to the reader, the one who almost certainly is not eager to spend extra time or effort poring through our paragraphs just to find out what they might have to offer.

So, then: Omit. Begin there, with what is never written at all. Cut. I have addressed this: how the writer’s best friend is the trashcan. As writers, we owe it to the reader to lift away as much as we can of the effort of reading. Say it simply, then find the way to say it more simply still, because even our simple writing is apt to be unclear and even our plain writing is more ornate than we think. Reading is work, and in the way it calls upon mind rather than muscle, it is hard work. If my piece can make its point in 1,400 words just as thoroughly as the point was made in my draft that came in at 2,400 words, then I should cut those 1,000 words. The reader is paying for those words. The monetary cost to the reader is negligible (in most cases, it’s free), but the reader still pays with time, and more so pays with attention. Give a good bargain for this price. 

Then, let in the color, even though this might slightly expand the words. Insert variety, alliteration, and even asides as you can to keep up the interest and energy of the piece. Be a companion to the reader along this journey. To do so, practice giving yourself permission to include these friendly or funny touches as they occur to you, in part so these flourishes will feel welcome in your thoughts and occur to you more often. Draft rapidly, so the touches of color flash faster than you can doubt them, and the dutiful and ponderous excesses of your writing perhaps get skipped altogether.

Be clear. The writer, the pro, is the one who has cultivated the skill of reading the work as though from the mind of a stranger. How could these lines be misconstrued? Does the introduction imply a promise that goes unfulfilled? And the most basic and powerful way to be clear is found in the answer to this question: Why read the piece at all? That is, why should the reader make the effort? Before your piece’s introduction ends, you should have been clear on this much. For a piece the length of this one, that means before the first breaker. The piece's introduction should firmly imply or directly state who the piece is for and why reading it will be valuable. Indeed, if the last paragraph before the first breaker begins, “Reading this article is valuable if you are...,” then that clarity would not be too heavy-handed. Rather, a statement such as this is service, aiding the reader in weighing whether his precious attention should go to this piece.

Cutting, color, clarity—I seem to be talking about diamonds. Somewhat famously, there are four “C’s” to how a diamond is characterized: its cut, color, clarity, and the only one I am missing is “carat.” This last “C” is a measure of the diamond’s weight. The parallel still holds.

Your writing will have weight. Each piece has more or less weight depending on the subject matter, and this weight is the consideration that potentially argues against all the other considerations above. The piece’s weight might duly affect how much you can cut and just how clear you can be. With your writing, you are to serve the reader. With your writing, you are also to serve the truth.

We will return to this. For now, there is still other service to address.

Deference to Digital
Let me now speak of the search engine. Let me now speak of social media.

Another shift my writing has undergone is one the writer beginning today will never have to make, because digital media now predominate. That wasn’t the case for me; I saw digital media ascend, and so my writing had to adapt. Headlines, for example, had to change. Print media prefers short headlines—the longer the piece, the shorter the headline—because that headline serves as both a tease for the article and a graphic element of its layout. But in an online context where the title is also a search return, serving the reader means providing a headline so long and detailed that it includes subject and verb, like a newspaper headline but longer—the headline practically a summary. And that headline also includes, for Google’s sake, relevant keywords the reader might be searching on. This last consideration recognizes we are not just serving readers, but also the AI that will deliver the piece to them.

Then, for social media, there is the consideration of what emotional flavor can be attributed to this piece—the urgency or import, the attitude or air. In social media, of course, the “like” is the principal transmission mechanism, because likes trip the algorithms that lead to more exposure. Serving the reader here means being of service to social media by making the piece available here and attractive to like or share, so long as we can do so with healthy detachment. Important to remember: Affirmation in social media offers no correlation to the merit of the work. For both the viral piece and the overlooked piece, the like is just a click, given on impulse. Most respondents in social media react to the existence of a piece or their sense of its flavor, clicking like before they have read it, if they ever do. You know this is true, and you know social media platforms are engineered to encourage this impulsive engagement. I highlight this so as to say: You are not responsible for, and should not be affected by, the seeming judgment given your work by algorithms that seek to channel emotional responses. 

Yet it is the marketplace we have, and serving potential readers means entering that marketplace. Service includes playing the game of digital media, not boycotting it. I confess I do boycott sometimes—I opt out in a small area in which I feel free to give in to my weariness over serving algorithms. In the writing I do that appears only on my personal blog, only for readers who follow me there, I sometimes give pieces one-word titles. That is, I indulge now and then in refusing to submit to valuation of the piece the way Google wants to value it. But this is an indulgence, and it is never what I do for work that is in service to an employer or client. For any of these pieces, I write the title (and to some extent the body copy, too) with an eye toward the hope that Google, or the friend of a friend in social media, will lead others to read it.

Service to the algorithms simply must not be obedience to the algorithms. One way to ensure this is to re-read and keep in mind the “you are not responsible” point above. Depending on what your work aims for, adapting it too much to social media might ruin it. If a work you write ever falls flat in social media despite your hope and attempts for it to be better received there, do not seek meaning in terms of the work’s worth. The piece you’re offering may be very good for the context it addresses or the audience it serves, but the social media platform’s algorithm—a machine—cannot tell as much. You do not serve machines as your primary aim. You serve readers, so write the next piece.

The Springsteen Standard
I just now drew a distinction between service and obedience. I was speaking of algorithms, but the question applies here as well: Is service to readers obedience to readers? There is a distinction also to be made here. Sometimes, the writing can only be so clear. Sometimes, the piece might give some readers the wrong idea, and there is nothing you can do about this because the full value of the piece is not for them.

Think of “Born in the USA” as a standard here, a model for when full clarity must give way. This song, written and performed by Bruce Springsteen, comes off as a patriotic anthem. Plenty of listeners receive it this way, scan it this way, pump their fists in celebration of this understanding of the song, and have done so since it was released decades ago. I have read that Springsteen feels the tension of this and regrets that so many take this message from the song, a message very different from what the lyrics convey. But in this case, I believe there is nothing he could have done. The song would have been less true if it was clearer. As it is, the world is better for his having given it this song. 

You must be clear. And more than this, you must tell the truth. The matter at stake is service to the reader versus service to readers, and these imperatives can be at odds. 

How do we resolve them? I don’t have the answer. I only know when I have a clue.

Here it is: I have a hint that I am serving truth—and therefore possessed of some license to be unclear, to be misunderstood by some—when I myself am unprotected.

That is, if I am placing a weight on the reader because of the truth, then that very same weight should be on me. I should be willing to go deep into the difficulty of the idea I am proposing. I should be willing to do the hard work of carrying that weight with the reader. If parts of my writing are unclear, I should at least see this and be aware. I should regret that some readers aren’t getting it—I should feel this as a failing, perhaps my failing—so that I am all the more attentive in my service to the reader who is still with me. To offer the truth to this reader all the more truly, I should (for example) disavow any seeming implications I can’t defend, and admit to the rough spots at which my tidy argument breaks down. Bad writing is often agenda-driven writing—I want to justify myself or my position, so I race over omissions and take the long way around the illogic in my assertions left there because of my bias toward my own feelings, my satisfaction, my priorities. 

Service is a test of the worth of writing. It is the test. Am I serving the reader? Am I serving truth? These questions deserve to be asked. They should inform how we write and what we choose to share. Or, instead of the reader, am I serving me? That is, am I trying to create through my posting or publishing a world in which my outlook is championed or touted instead of being humbly explained and offered up for use? If the answer to this last question is affirmative, then there is cause to wonder whether the selfish work I am crafting really qualifies as writing at all.