on Writing & Publishing

Reading Distractions: Questions

Writing creates an adventure, a series of thoughts and images that lead the reader, carrying them on a series of emotional peaks and troughs through an ocean of time, moving them from one point to another and, hopefully, adding something of value or making the adventure fun along the way.

As a writer, it's important to think about what your reader will experience on that journey. It's important to think about the various elements of language and how they combine to create that experience, that adventure that your reader embarks on when they commit to reading something you've written. (You're on a mini adventure right now.)

Adventures that are uncomfortable and full of unwanted distractions are not much fun. If anything, they're hard work. You want your adventures to be enjoyable, easy, and free from distractions.

Distractions come in all forms, the most obvious of which are bad grammar, bad spelling, badly assembled sentences, hard to follow paragraphs, and the usage of words that are needlessly complicated. But there are much less obvious distractions that can subtly influence the adventure and distract the reader from the experience.

Let me give you a real-world example.

A friend shared an article with me called 7 Habits of Highly Prolific Writers. The article starts with a short introduction and then lists the seven habits with little descriptions underneath each one:

Questions can be a source of unwanted distraction

Notice the question at the end of that first point? That question is a dangerous distraction.

When I began reading this list, that one question — "What’s yours?"  —  made me stop and think.

I began to wonder, what is my creative time? What are my daily routines? When do I usually do my creative work? Suddenly I wasn't interested in reading point number two because I'd already been distracted by a question in point number one. The momentum was lost and the adventure ended prematurely.

When I tried to ignore that lost momentum and continue reading anyway, I found that only a fraction of my attention was available; I was still thinking about that question in the back of my head.

In all forms of communication questions are powerful things. They invite the listener to stop listening to you, to stop being receptive to what you're saying and listen instead to themselves.

Of course not all questions are created equal: there are many questions in this essay but none of them are asking you to stop and think deeply, or to recall memories or think about your daily routines or even access the vast stores of knowledge buried inside your brain.

In writing, there's a time and place for questions and it's important to anticipate what effect your question will have on the readers' experience of that writing. Sometimes you want the reader to stop and consider something before continuing on and at other times you want the reader to have an easy and comfortable route to go from one point to the next.

Questions at the end of an essay or article can invite the reader to continue exploring on their own, to extend the conversation using their own unique treasure-trove of memories and experiences, trail-blazing and sharing a unique adventure beyond and outside your own writing.

What other distractions have you noticed while reading?

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  1. I always strive to keep my writing easy to read. That’s a great tip, thank you. And I like the idea of the reader being on an adventure. It’s a great way to frame the role of the author: a tour guide.