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Good Intentions

In the classical musical world, we talk about intention all the time. Did the composer mean to be reverent, celebratory, contemplative, angryóin short, what is the composer trying to convey? A composer uses many tools to get a certain message across and itís the duty of the performers and conductors to figure out where the music is headed and what the composer intended so that the listener can respond.

 

Music without lyrics can be subject to wild diversity of interpretation, so itís important for the performers to agree on the intention of the composer (or the conductorís interpretation) in order to produce a cohesive performance. Music with lyrics is much easier to decipher because the text itself provides most of the information. Text is the great intention clarifier.

 

You can see that itís even simpler when you only provide the text without the melody, as you who write technical text know. Oh, you still have emphasis and other subjective aspects to play around with, but words are the medium through which your intention is conveyed.

 

For your readers to follow along, you have to decide where you intend to take them before you begin to write. Outlining is the most obvious way to prevent wandering or unintentional (or non-directional) writing, but if youíre writing a quick little blog entry or you just canít wrap your head around outlining, pause for a moment to put the intention of your piece into one succinct thought. Name your audience and the broadest topic of your piece.

 

Imagine that your task is to expose the details of adaptation tools in a new release of the now infamous Purple People Plotter. First, you need to establish who your audience is. Here are some possibilities:

 

Each of these readers is quite different, but when you begin your writing task, you donít want to completely exclude those for whom the piece is not a perfect match. Thatís the trick.

 

In some cases, you can just declare your audience (MSDN articles often provide a venue for saying what products or level of previous understanding is required, for instance) and let your audience choose whether or not to proceed on their own. But most of the time, you have to find a polite way to limit your audience.

 

With limiting your audience in mind, letís get back to intention. If your intention is to reveal hitherto secret aspects of Purple People Plotters, or perhaps even the downside of a new version, all three audiences are still relevant. (There are more variations of audience types, of course. Iím using three obvious ones to simplify the discussion. You can find out more about identifying your audience in my April 2004 blog, Identifying Audience.) The challenge is to declare your intention so that readers recognize themselves and make a subjective choice about continuing.

Okay, first you can assume a basic interest in the general subject. People donít show up at a Bach concert expecting to hear Green Day. If youíve titled your piece in such a way that the general subject is revealed, youíve already attracted or repelled accordingly.

 

Now youíve got to find a clever way to say who your intended specific audience is and focus on conveying the intention of the piece. Letís look at a few examples.

There are several intention-revealing devices in each of these examples.

 

The first example names the audience by saying ďdevelopingĒ and tells us what specific aspect of the product will be examined. Itís active voice in the past tense, which tells us that we can rush right out and get it (something this audience probably already knows), and it tells us that it can be used as is or customized.

 

The second example names a simple specific task. When addressing users and neophytes, you need to make sure that your piece doesnít sound complicated and that it sounds very specific. Itís true that specificity might limit the audience a little, but your intention is to invite nervous readers in, so thatís okay. Itís a present-tense sentence, and active voice, which always seems more enthusiastic than past tense or passive voice. The important thing here is not to pack the first sentence with too much information. Itís much better to use short and specific sentences for easily intimidated audiences, especially if youíre used to living in Developer Land.

 

The final example is marketing language. Itís passive voice (marketing people love that, apparently), it uses adjectives and buzz words, and it tries to be all things to all people.

 

There are lots of other ideas to play with, but I think you get my intention. Now letís turn to the rest of the piece.

 

Letís say that you took the time to outline. Examine your outline for intention and audience by seeing whether each major heading answers the demands of your initial declaration of audience. You can work with each area of coverage the same way I did with opening sentences, by directing the language and the coverage at a specific group.

 

Developers, for instance, need to know the details of any down side so they can choose the right tools for their tasks. Managers need to know that there are down sides and if there are work-arounds, but users really only want to know what the product does, not what it doesnít do. Developers are seldom completely fooled by marketing hyperbole and need to see whether there are advantages to trying this new thing. Developers are the most likely audience to try something just because itís new, with no clear practical application for the product in mind, so some marketing language is appropriate just to draw them in. But keep it to a minimum if you want to get a reputation for clear and incisive writing.

 

Users and neophytes find it difficult to understand how the product is relevant to them if thereís a lot of developer language or elliptical marketing fluff. You need to be the most direct when your readers are at this basic level.

 

Wielding text with intention is the key to writing succinctly, whether youíre writing fiction, marketing copy, newspaper ads, or highly technical articles or books. Letís look at fiction a little bit, just for fun, and because it may more graphically illustrate what I mean.

 

Letís say youíre writing a murder mystery. The intention of your project might be any or all of these:

If your intention is to entertain, you really need to identify your audience. Someone who laughs at the Three Stooges probably wonít laugh at Dave Barry, and vice versa. People who want to be surprised come in different flavors too; some like to be led to the Happy Place and then have a bucket of blood thrown on them, and others like to have all the facts placed before them so they can solve the problem themselves. If you want to teach or show something, you just have to be very clear about what that is and how youíre going to get there because you probably also want to meet the other two intentions while youíre at it.

 

It might be possible to be all things to all people in fiction, although Iíve read a lot of fiction and havenít really seen that. Iíve also read a lot of highly technical material, and Iím very sure that you have to be as narrow as possible in both your audience definition and your intention if you want to keep your audience engaged through to the end.