A Model of Finite Writing/Reading Energy

Posted on July 11, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , |

Being instructor for 47 college students at Oregon State for the summer has provided an opportunity to think about writing and what I’ve learned through my own professional experience. My goal in the Strategic Management and Business Policy class is two-fold: help students apply what they’ve learned in business school to strategic planning and introduce them to the realities of writing in the work world. The first goal is more-or-less dictated by the College of Business curriculum. The second is more open-ended and is loosely directed by a set of university guidelines based upon the Writing Intensive Course standards. This article describes my beliefs about writing and reading that emerged while attempting to explain the value of putting more energy into a persuasive writing assignment.

There are several factors in this model — first, each writing piece achieves a finite energy value as determined through a combination of writer expertise and reader interest. In other words, when a writer has a deep level of knowledge on a particular topic, the potential energy value is high. Likewise, if the topic of the writing is something of great interest to the reader, the potential energy value is also high. Conversely, a novice subject matter expert or casually-interested reader suggests a lower energy value. If the expertise-interest combination determines the maximum energy value, the energy exerted by the writer dictates the energy required for the reader to understand. In other words, it is the writer who determines how much energy the reader needs to exert to understand the subject.

Writer-Reader EnergyIn the chart above, the absolute value of energy is always 100%. This indicates all three examples are dealing with a subject where the combination of the reader’s interest and the writer’s expertise are constant — let’s say it is the same article with different levels of energy exerted by the writer to create it.

Writer ease occurs when the writer expends relatively little effort (20% in this example) to create the article causing the reader to exert much more effort (80%) to understand. This often happens in technical writings where the reader really needs the information in the article. Therefore, she will go to great lengths to dig to the bottom of meaning. This was common in the engineering-dominated company where I worked for many years.

For a variety of reasons, an author can exert a high level of energy on an article but fails to generate a truly easy to read piece because he stopped before the article was done or simply didn’t have enough expertise to present clearly. Expertise and persistence are important! The middle example demonstrates an author who has a natural writing ability but lacks the interest to finely polish the work. Or, it could represent an author with an interest in clarity but who lacks the skills (writing mechanics) or resources (access to knowledgeable editors) to fully complete the work.

Reader ease occurs when the author exerts a high degree of writing energy in the article. This is typically done through writing mechanics and repetitive iterations with feedback to polish the article so that it presents well and is easy to understand. This outcome often requires a great deal of subject matter mastery as well. Ironically, as Mark Twain used to say, “The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.”

When the writer puts a great deal of energy into an article the reader requires little energy to extract its message. This is the sign of a well written article — some might call it a work of art.

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