Resistance

In a recent post I talked about Natalie Goldberg’s book The True Secret of Writing. Since then I’ve been thinking the topic of resistance that she talks about in her wonderful Practice chapter.

Resistance works two ways. Writers don’t want to sit down to tackle a writing task (it’s called “writer’s block”), and readers can be just as unwilling to absorb what we’re trying to tell them.

I’m saving writer’s block for another day.  Today we’re going to talk about resistance from readers and listeners. It’s a phenomenon I run into whenever I do a Plain Writing workshop.

First, some background. Congress passed the Plain Writing Act in 2010, and President Obama signed it. It calls upon federal agencies to use “clear Government communication that the public can understand.” Here’s an example of bad business writing:

It is requested that employees extinguish illumination when the necessity for such illumination expires because of the conclusion of work-related activities requiring such illumination, such as the end of the working day.  JARGON

And here’s the Plain Language version:

Turn out the lights when you’re leaving.  BETTER

Although local and state agencies aren’t covered by this legislation, many of them are making a huge effort to simplify their documents and publications. Bravo! (You can go to www.PlainLanguage.gov for some wonderful examples and tools.)

Ever since the Plain Writing Act was passed, I’ve been conducting workshops for various local agencies. And here’s what I’ve discovered: every employee is heartily in favor of plain writing – until you ask them to give up their jargon.

Erk! RESISTANCE. Lots of it. “We’ll sound stupid!” “You don’t understand the way we do things here.” “My clients won’t respect me.”

Today’s post is going to be the first of two about this problem. I’m going to talk about a) why readers sometimes fight back and b) how to overcome that resistance. A future post will deal specifically with Plain Language.

 *  *  *  *  *  * 

Every writer wants readers to be enlightened by what we’re telling them. But here’s the thing: when your audience instantly accepts your message, there’s a good chance that they haven’t heard you at all. Genuine communication often provokes agitation, unrest, confusion, and disbelief. You’ll hear some loud voices. A few tomatoes may be lobbed at you.

Those Plain Language workshops I conduct every year are a perfect example. When I talk about strategies for communicating effectively with the public, my listeners smile agreeably and nod their approval.

But when I ask them to apply the principles of Plain Language – mutiny!

So what’s the answer? Today I’m going to cover one of my favorite strategies: Drill down into an apparently simple idea to show how complex it really is.

I’m going to use a story one of my friends told me. She was horrified one day to hear her daughter and several other teenagers talking about how much fun it would be to have a real, live baby.

Alarm bells! But what to do? My friend had already delivered the usual birds-and-bees talk, along with some warnings about the problems of single motherhood.

Her solution was a lunchtime trip to a nearby shopping mall, where she and her daughter just happened (or so it seemed!) to stroll through a store that specialized in furniture and products for babies. Her daughter was charmed by the bassinets and toys – and aghast at the prices and the sheer number of items needed to care for a baby. Over lunch Mom casually shared some long-ago memories about what it was like to be the brand-new mother of an infant.

A couple of weeks later, my friend overheard another conversation from the teen-aged group: they were talking about all the fun they were going to have in college.

Huge sigh of relief! Caring for a baby is much more challenging than taking care of a baby doll. Daughter saw some of the complexity (the furniture and products in the store) and heard about it (her mom’s stories).

In my next post, I’m going to talk about the hidden complexities of business writing. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll think about drilling down into some everyday topics that seem simple until you look closely at them.

How do you:

  • settle relationship disagreements 
  • invest your money
  • manage your time
  • buy a house
  • plan a vacation

Think too about your job, your religious beliefs, your political philosophy, a problem you solved recently…any area that absorbs your time, energy, and attention. Drill down until you find something fresh and unexpected. Take whatever you find to your readers, and watch them fight back! That’s where real communication begins, in all its frustration and glory.

I’ll have more to say about Plain Language in the next post.

Resistance

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