The Big Picture: Writing With Perspective

ImageWe've known guest columnist Daniel Passamaneck for longer than many of our readers have been alive, and we've always been gobsmacked by his writerly virtuosity. His blog, The Chucklehut, varies wildly from post to post; at times it's convulsively comic, at others deeply poignant and alive with perceptive observations about his fellow humans (including the strangers he studies on San Francisco public transport). It's always a rewarding read, and we urge you to add it to your daily online perambulations.

The following, while a marked departure from Dan's often frolicsome tone, contains sage advice for writers of all stripes (and spots).

*     *    *

Perspective is a critical tool for identifying, articulating and delivering any message. It encompasses a range of considerations: the writer's own perspective, the reader's and the positioning of the piece itself. In good writing, these all cohere seamlessly. When writing is muddy or ineffective, it's often because the author lost track of what needed to be said, who was going to read it or where it was going to be seen.

Maintaining perspective as a writer is the first and biggest challenge. It seems like a fairly straightforward proposition to think of what you want to say and then to say it. But the devil is in the details: modifiers that fit so neatly you overlook that they're inapt; dependent phrases that misdirect the reader's focus; getting the clauses in just the right order. Your point might best be made right up front or held back till the final word or presented somewhere in-between the way the summit marks the middle of a mountain hike. You may need to test each option before you even recognize what part of what you're saying is truly the heart of your text. But if you can keep a clear view of what you want to say, you are much more likely to say it eventually.

I print out a draft, let it rest and then read it again, sentence by sentence, with scrupulous detachment and a fine-tipped pen.

Composing on a computer, I find it's easy to lose my perspective because the words flow too quickly and I type uncritically. I wind up with all kinds of superfluous verbiage, pretty little passages that diffuse my point. My solution to this trap is to print out a draft, let it rest and then read it again, sentence by sentence, with scrupulous detachment and a fine-tipped pen.

I pay particular attention to conjunctions and modifiers – adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases. Do they clearly relate to their referent? Do they actually lend the shading I originally intended – and if so, is that choice still the right choice? I mark up mercilessly, retype and re-save as a new document (in case I want to revert to a prior version), allow it to marinate and edit again. When I keep my perspective, this process ultimately produces a text that precisely conveys my meaning.

In recognition of this dynamic, I compose in longhand whenever I can, marking up the same scrawled draft over and again using different colors each time. The editing process thus becomes visible, each change and deletion leaving its mark so I can track the evolution of the text like a literary paleontologist, watching the message emerge from successive approximations. Being able to see where I've been can be very helpful in clarifying where I want to go.

As you wrestle to state your case, also take time to remember the perspective of your reader. It's entertaining to write something that tickles your fancy, but if your readers are not going to feel at home with the vocabulary or if the sentence structure demands more concentration than they have to offer, even a beautifully constructed text will fail. Material that challenges what we anticipate may inspire – or antagonize. Keep your reader's expectations and point of view clearly in mind and your message is that much more likely to be understood and appreciated.

Writing is as simple as falling off a log; writing well is as challenging as the 10-meter diving platform.

After you've built a text and shaped it for your reader, take a minute to make sure you've considered where it's going to be seen. The perspective of the message in context is distinct from that of you as an author or how your audience might perceive it.

What's the medium – electronic or "hard?" Will the reader have the chance to peruse it carefully or just scan it briefly? Does it have to fit into a body of other work or can it stand proudly alone? Are you writing something that will be read aloud – and if so, under what circumstances? Do you need to cut things down, punch things up, change the format? And does any of this affect the choices you've made as a writer? By visualizing where and how your writing will be seen, you can improve the odds that the message will get through.

Writing is as simple as falling off a log; writing well is as challenging as the 10-meter diving platform. You can improve your execution and look better doing it if you can get out of your own head and project new perspectives for yourself. Make sure that every word you use accurately conveys your ideas. Put yourself in your readers' shoes to understand how your words will look from that point of view. And finally, envision the message as it will appear in its ultimate form to ensure that it will grab eyeballs and hold them long enough to matter. Perspective, perspective and perspective. Because 10-meter belly flops don't just get low scores – they're painful, too.