Today I’m going to offer you some unconventional advice. If you want to be a better writer, you should read Dale Carnegie’s classic book How to Win Friends & Influence People. (Click the link to download a free copy.)
It’s one of only two self-help books I know of that have such wide application that you can read them again and again – and still learn something new. (The other book is Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.)
I discovered Carnegie’s book decades ago and have reread it many times. It was a godsend for me (an introvert who has had to work hard on developing social skills). More important, Carnegie’s skills and principles apply to a multitude of life situations, including writing (which I’ll get to in a moment).
First I want to tell you a non-writing story. Years ago, a neighbor was doing some yard work that undermined the fence between his property and ours. Charlie and I politely pointed out the problem. Our neighbor grumpily told us the fence was no concern of his. Charlie and I dejectedly went back into our house.
But then I remembered a story from Dale Carnegie’s book. A businessman ordered lumber for an important project. But because he didn’t understand how lumber is graded and priced, he botched the order – and then got angry at the salesman (who had tried in vain to switch him to a better grade of lumber).
The salesman’s solution was to politely invite the customer to watch while a shipment of lumber was unloaded. As they stood there, the salesman started making a few quiet observations about the pieces of lumber that were coming off the truck. This went on for more than an hour. And then – miraculously – the customer apologized and changed his order.
Back to our fence: I went to the neighbor’s house and asked if we could walk around his back yard together. He agreed, and off we went. I made small talk and never brought up the problem with the fence. After our walk, I thanked him and went home.
About fifteen minutes later, I looked out our kitchen window – and there was our neighbor, hard at work reinforcing the weakened fence. Problem solved. (Charlie was impressed!) Thank you, Dale Carnegie.
* * * * * *
Back to writing. Lately I’ve been busy with several editing jobs…and I’ve found they share the same problem: a lack of consideration for the reader. The authors go on and on about what they think and what they consider important. Their readers are forgotten.
For example, a friend was writing a book about keeping tropical fish. (He gave me permission to share this story.) His chapter about buying a fish tank began with a long and lively discourse about how aquariums were made when he was a boy – and then went on to discuss what’s different today.
Only then did he get around to answering the question foremost in his reader’s mind: What should I be thinking about when I go to a store to buy a fish tank? That information should have been presented at the beginning of the chapter, not the end.
But putting yourself into your reader’s shoes doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Instead we want to start with our own experiences, memories, and thoughts. The result is an article or book that dawdles and wanders before it finally starts addressing the reader’s concerns.
Of course it’s human nature to do this…especially since many school assignments don’t require a thoughtful analysis of the person who’s going to read your piece.
What’s great about Dale Carnegie is that he constantly encourages you to adopt the other person’s viewpoint – and that’s one of the most important principles in writing.
Please: Download his book (or borrow it from your library) – and start applying his ideas to your writing! (And they just might come in handy in other situations as well – another reason to read his book.)
Here’s one tip to get you started: If you’re writing an informative piece, use the word you frequently. Ironically, this is a practice that many schools discourage. Here’s a reminder to keep repeating: Toto, we’re not in school anymore!