Monday, October 24, 2011

How to How-To: Part 2 - Audience, Scope, and Chunks

What is my project all about? Who will read it? How much information will it include? These are a few of the questions all writers need to ask at the beginning of any writing project. This part shows you how to find the answers.

Determining the audience and scope
Before you begin any project, you should be able to answer two questions:

1. Who is the audience—my readers? Everything you write will be read by a particular person. A book on assembling model trains will be read by people who collect, build, and sell model trains. This is your audience. People who want to learn how to raise chickens won’t be interested in your book.

Before you begin any project, state the typical reader of your project. For example, if you’re writing a cookbook, describe who will use the book, their level of cooking skills and experience, what kinds of meals they’ll want to prepare, and what they will expect from your book. An example of an audience description is: “This cookbook is for single, busy men who know nothing about Italian cooking but want to wow their friends with their culinary flair.”

As you develop your audience description, be aware of secondary (and tertiary) audiences. For example, if you’re writing a book proposal, your primary audience is the editor or assistant who will read your proposal. Your secondary audience is the person who will buy the book (who might not be the person who’ll read it). A tertiary audience is the person to whom the book will be given or read (such as a child or someone unable to read).

2. What is the project’s scope—its boundaries? In addition to stating your audience, you should be able to describe the project’s content and boundaries. To help you find the answer, ask these questions:
  • What is this project?
  • What will it include?
  • And not include?
  • Why am I writing it?
Using the cookbook example again, with all the foods, meals, and cooking techniques available in the world (and more to be developed), which ones will you include and leave out? How much knowledge and experience should the reader have already? (Notice this question includes your audience.) You might describe the scope as: “This cookbook includes recipes for making simple meals unique to southern Italy. It does not offer wine suggestions. It assumes no knowledge of cooking.”

Determining your audience and scope before you begin the project helps you stay on track as you develop it. As you write, you’ll know how much information to include. For example, if your cookbook assumes no knowledge of cooking, you’ll know that you need to tell readers how to peel a potato and grease a pan.

Chunking information
We humans process information by becoming familiar with the general and moving toward the detail. When we read (or hear) all the information about a topic in the same place, we retain the information more quickly, easily, and completely.

The technique of placing all the information about a topic in one place and having it flow from general to specific is called “chunking.” (Not the most civilized name, but it gets the point across. Another name for chunking is “information mapping,” so take your pick.) One chunk includes introductory, conceptual, how-to, and optional (tips, cautions, and “gotchas”) information about one topic.

The easiest way to organize information from general to detailed is by using graduated section headings, with content to match. The following is an example of a chunk in our cookbook. (By the way, this is a great outline—imagine how easily you could add the content.)

A History of Vegetables
Types of Vegetables
Cooking Vegetables
Deep Frying
Gotchas for Cooking Vegetables
Storing Vegetables
(and so on)

Note: Chunking is different from the journalistic technique of the “inverted pyramid” (providing the urgent, immediate information first and then adding extraneous information), because chunking starts by introducing a subject, provides context, and then describes the details.

For example, think of how you might describe an address to someone traveling here from Mars, and you can understand the difference:

North America
Suffolk County
325 North Street
Apartment 15
Jody Hamster

Making it work for you
Try these techniques on your current nonfiction project. First, describe your audience and scope. Then, think about how to organize the information into chunks. Have fun, and happy writing!

Copyright © 2011 by Marilyn C. Hilton

Sunday, October 16, 2011

How to How-To: Part 1 - Introduction

Today starts a seven-part series on writing how-to information, which will explain some techniques and give you examples of how to use them in your writing projects. You’ll learn how to:

  • Determine your project’s audience and scope—to help you know who you’re writing to, and what your project will and won’t include.
  • Organize information into “chunks” that readers can absorb and digest easily.
  • Group similar information into bulleted lists, numbered steps, and tables—and know when to use each type.
  • Enhance your text with art, and how to do it effectively.
  • For books, develop a leak-proof index that points your readers directly to the information they need.
  • Edit down to the bone for clear and concise text.
Well-written how-to information is organized and presented in a clear, logical, and organized format. By applying these techniques to your nonfiction books, articles, proposals, and queries, you can improve their readability, appeal, and value.
With the proliferation of “info bytes” and Web content, writers need to know how to organize and present information logically, to catch and hold readers’ attention and interest. Clear, clean copy also reflects a professional approach and can help you establish and maintain credibility with audiences, editors, and agents.

Here are some projects that you can apply how-to writing techniques to:

  • Book proposals
  • Queries and other business correspondence
  • Grants
  • Nonfiction books
  • Articles
  • How-to and self-help books
  • Cookbooks (an excellent example of a how-to book)
  • Other instructions
  • Indexes
Next time, I'll explain how to figure out who your audience will be (who'll read your how-to) and how to “chunk” information into bite-sized pieces.
Happy writing!

Copyright © 2011 by Marilyn C. Hilton