Do Not Say We Have Only Text

Crossposted from my now-retired blog, Writing for Learner Engagement. 

4 min read

Our digital culture is noisy. The space we call “online” is flooded with visual clutter and gutless content. The attention we deliver to incoming electronic communications is fractured and highly sought by forces more powerful than the average joe communicator. Marketing teams with full-time writers and data analysts know just the right words to use in a post triggered at just the right time. So, in such an environment, how can an email to teachers with instructions about how to use our Report Card program compete with the temptation of professionally-crafted distraction?

To me, the answer is this: despite this critically-low ratio of signal to noise, people yearn for connection and meaning in their content. Our psychology may betray us as we respond to click-bait but, deep down, we crave content that matters, that actually helps us advance and improve ourselves. I chose this plain blog theme as my gift to you – a chance to experience calm when reading online, to be as distraction-free as I may provide on your behalf.

This week, I found myself mimicking some of the conventions of the click-bait posts we’ve all seen around the Internet. As I mentioned in a discussion post elsewhere, titles such as 5 Things I learned this week (and number 3 will blow your mind) are no longer clever; they are beneath us. I refuse to copy them. I am struggling to create an alternate voice for myself that strays from conventions I have otherwise adopted. Softening academic, precise, correct language into something that reads more colloquially – and feels more relatable – is my challenge for the week.

In the re-writing assignment, the damage of inactive text became clear. I worked to create an audience that I can speak to directly, and built the language around a reader character. “You will be able to…”, “Your friends will thank you”, “Don’t you hate when…”, and pulling in the reader by including myself by saying “Those of us who…”. Saying, not just writing. There is a balance between the reader understanding consciously that the text has a writer, and being able to construct an abstract narrator and allow them to speak. Speak, not just write or be read. That kind of language brings writing to life. This kind of language brings life to writing. Such subtle differences are at once subjective and respectful. Even if being spoken to is not your cup of tea, at least the writer tried. You have got to give them points for that!

In the emails I send to staff, I work hard at being concise, but I also adopt the linguistic norms I experience from my school’s communication culture. I quickly replaced “Hi Everyone” with “Hello Faculty” or “Hi Grade 9-12 Teachers”, hoping that activating the salutation of my note would give a reader a sense of the company they kept as part of an intended audience. I aspire not to use 2 words when 1 will do, but sometimes the second word enhances the specificity of my instruction.

From early conversations with my colleagues, I remember receiving conflicting advice. “Adam, just tell me exactly what to do, in explicit detail, and I’ll do it – can’t go wrong.” Others asked, “why are there so many instructions? Too much reading! Just give me the big picture; I’ll try it and ask for help if I get stuck.” Over the years, I have hacked away, using formatting such as headings to give a sense of the most important information, and organizational structures to help provide detail without making it mandatory or overwhelming. The language is active but concise. I don’t editorialize when addressing the targeted mass, though I do violate my own beliefs about email as an information-only medium and use pleasantries like “I hope you are having a wonderful weekend” and “Good luck with Report Cards” as a way to project context and establish a reader’s relationship.

I think the main difference about writing for learner engagement is that it supposes a new form and a different purpose for reading. While I will always view face-to-face interaction as superior and preferred, I can think of a few people who would prefer never to have to speak face to face. They enjoy the safety of keeping their communications asynchronous. It gives them time to think, time to process, time to craft a response. These affordances are important to their own task orientation – moreso than the social elements of work life – and I need to respect this diversity, too. Writing readable content involves crafting a relationship and motivating the reader to want to participate. It upgrades a functional collection of information to make it instructive and memorable, or, at the very least, enjoyable.

I hope you can sense my struggle, and that it resonates with you, too. Thanks for the time you invested in reading this post through to the end. Your comments or feedback are encouraged, and certainly most welcome. – Adam

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