Friday, January 6

Hey Writer ... Why Do Think Your Words Are So Special Anyway?

As mind boggling as it seems, we will be exposed to more than a million words today. No, we won't see all of them, but they are there — framing webpages, breaking up social media updates, decorating walls, accompanying us to work on the horizon, and tucking us in when we go to bed.

Even those who didn't pick up a book this year — their lives are overflowing with words. In fact, this overwhelming volume of messages might even explain why the number of book readers has dipped in recent years. With as much content as people consume, voluntarily and involuntarily, it becomes increasingly difficult to fathom why anyone might want to add a few thousand more.

If you write, it ought to make you think too. What makes your words so special?

It doesn't even matter what kind of writer you might be. Literary writers have the seemingly impossible task of targeting voluntary readers to add more words to their lives, which is precisely why most authors never break more than $10,000 per published novel. Content marketers and copywriters have a seemingly impossible task too.

They target otherwise involuntary readers, using interruption, distraction, and attraction as tools of the trade. But even if they are very good at it, even great at it, most of them know that the number of times a reader has to be exposed to a message before it sticks has increased from three times in the 1960s to somewhere around 300 times today.

Even if it does stick, awareness is fragile. One typpppo, intentional or not, and even the best written message suddenly evaporates as our minds are attracted more to mistakes than best intentions.

Sure, some people argue that typos have become okay. They really aren't so okay when you realize they tend to attract more attention than the message.

Sure, we can all appreciate that the quantity of communication (how much we write) and the speed of communication (how fast we are asked to write it) has certainly contributed to the diminishing rate of quality — so much so that forgiveness is given much more readily than it once was. But does that make it right?

It depends, I suppose, on our expectation of outcome. Do we want people to remember our message or our mistake? If you want them to remember your message, then the error acceptance rate is zero.

If you want people to take the time to read your work, then take more time to write it.

In a few weeks, I'll be teaching Editing & Proofreading Your Work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. There are several takeaways from the class, including a better measure of how much time — from research to layout revisions — writing projects require (even if very few have such luxury).

It also includes some fundamentals on proofreading (the final polish) the work, start to finish:

1. Read the content out loud, slowly, with special attention paid to alliteration
2. Break up the content with a ruler, allowing you to see a line instead of a page
3. Start from the bottom up and backwards, seeing each word to check spelling
4. Print the content and, if you cannot print it, then change the font size and style
5. Set the work aside for a few hours or a day between writing, editing and proofreading

If you noticed that each of these techniques is tied to tricking your brain to see the content differently, you are right. The phenomenon that makes other people's writing errors stand out is the same phenomenon that makes ours so hard to spot. It's likely related to the Troxler effect, an optical illusion where unchanging stimulus away from a fixation point will fade and disappear.

Becoming a better proofreader of our own work often means changing the stimulus so our brain doesn't fill in details that don't exist after we've fixated on the work. Conversely, readers tend to spot errors much more quickly because the error disrupts the unchanging flow of content and our brains are programmed to see disruption. Never mind that our perception of authorship is the only change.

This isn't the only area where perception affects our writing. The value we place on it is based largely on perception too, unless we invest the time it takes to elevate the reader instead of merely informing them. Why bother? An article of 750 words is .00075 percent of the words someone will see today.
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