Good writers take great pains to make their work perfect. Whether it’s an article, story, novel or the text for a marketing campaign, they check and double-check to ensure that spelling and grammar conform to current standards. They labor over their opening sentences, using powerful images and language to grab the reader’s attention ASAP. Nonetheless, it’s not uncommon to overlook the obvious. The basic problem is something done by humans in general. We make assumptions.
Simply put, sometimes — quite often, in fact — we all need to get back to basics. And, there’s nothing more basic than being clear about what you want to say, understanding that what you know may differ from what someone else knows and remembering what impact you hope your piece — written or spoken — will have on others.
Location, Location, Location
After living in Northeastern Pennsylvania for almost eighteen years, I still marvel at the assumption — rampant from the Poconos along the Delaware river and the Lehigh Valley to the coal region surrounding the Scranton, Wilkes-Barre area and the rural Endless Mountains — that everyone knows where everything is. Businesses pay good money for TV, radio and print ads extolling the virtues of their products and services without the slightest mention of their location. I fear that my regular astonishment at this may be leading to facial abnormalities.
One summer, we came across an ad for a restaurant. Examining it thoroughly, we found no street address, no mention of the town in which the place is located, or even a reference to being near any major route. There was, however, a phone number. We didn’t recognize the exchange, so I called.
“Hello, can you tell me where you’re located?”
It was a prophetic question. The young man answered with a confused “uh,” moved his phone arm away from his mouth and bellowed, “Hey, Bob! Where are we located?”
Bob began to bellow the directions back to his employee, but stopped abruptly with an exasperated sigh. In the time it took for Bob to come to the conclusion that he had better talk to me himself, I couldn’t help wondering how the young man got to work.
As it turns out, they are at Rt. 6 and 11 in Clarks Summit, but assigning that information to print was apparently too much to ask. In their defense, as lame of an excuse as it is, they are probably paying by the word. Here’s an idea; why not drop the name next time and save even more?
Where Something Used to be Isn’t Quite Descriptive Enough
Then, it was an ad in Wyalusing’s Rocket-Courier. We were warmly invited to the Harkness Family Restaurant. The ad explained that Harkness used to be called The Tomahawk and went on to say that it had moved and is now located where The Pepper Shaker used to be. Naturally, there was no address. The sting of my own palm is still visible on my forehead.
We did, however, notice an ironic twist; the Wyalusing Hotel, which did have the good grace to list their address, hasn’t undergone a name or location change in over a hundred years.
Our favorite “directions” story, however, happened locally and had nothing to do with advertising. We stopped to help a befuddled truck driver, who was trying to make a delivery. Unfamiliar with the area, he had inquired at the Meshoppen Post Office. He was told to make a left just past Dibble’s Hardware Store.
Half an hour later, having driven to Lawton and back trying to find Dibble’s, he was understandably frustrated. Dibble’s, we explained, was right next to the Meshoppen Post Office. It’s value as a landmark, however, decreased significantly years ago when it burned down. But, everyone knows that, right?
Writers, How are You at Giving Directions?
But, what does forgetting the address in an ad have to do with being a good writer? How does failing to recognize the diminishing value of directions based upon long-since defunct landmarks impact your ability to tell a story? Making assumptions that other people understand us is as American as Mom and apple pie.
How many times have you met someone new, only to have them launch into a monologue about “Biffy and Buddy” without the slightest effort to explain who these people — or pets or who-knows-what — are? Navigating assumptions is part of life. To some extent, we’re thrown into this world, and we have to just figure it out as we go.
Writing is similar. We just have to go along with it. We’re not going to get all the details in the first paragraph, and we don’t want the writer to beat us over the head with constant reminders and premature information.
Good writing, unlike daily life, however, has the potential of mitigating the confusion with a little heads’-up to the reader at crucial junctures. Is it obvious who is speaking, that the setting has changed or that time has passed? Is a character’s motivation clear? Did you want the reader to be surprised when the heroine pulls a gun, runs away from home or saves her archenemy’s life? Or, does it serve a greater purpose for the reader to anticipate the action? The answer will determine how much detail you give up front.
As the writer, you are giving directions to the reader. Not only are you helping them get a handle on how, when and where the story unfolds, but on the deeper motivations and issues that underlie the story. This requires, of course, that you know these facts to begin with.