Reading The Writer’s Control of Tone edited by Edward M. White, I learned something about myself in the first two pages of the introduction. Talk about effective writing! White relates a story of a curriculum salesman visiting a college composition class he was teaching. White suggested in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of the curriculum he was selling, the salesman take on the role of teacher for the day and teach the class using the program materials. White himself would also play the part of a student.
When summoned to the blackboard to “correct” an overly elaborate sentence heavy-laden with adjectives and adverbs, to cross out all the superfluous words, White froze. The exercise which was intended to help sell a “writing” program had nothing to do with writing. It was then that White realized that in order to decide how to write or rewrite the sentence, he needed to decide what tone to use. In order to do that, he needed to know what he wanted to say and to whom he wanted to say it. “How can anyone write unless he has something to say to somebody?…Writing for nobody is not writing at all.”
I closed the book and ran to the computer. I am a firm believer in space and time intersecting on the graph of the fabric of the universe, God putting me at just the right place at just the right time, and, in my case, seeing just the right words to reveal what He would have me know at that moment in time and space. I am 45. I am writing a lot these days. Why didn’t I do it before? Did I have nothing to say? Surely, I have had ideas and opinions and observations for a mighty long time. And I’ve always, in one way or another, had words to communicate those thoughts. Did I have no one to whom to communicate them? Surely not. I have had a supportive family and a few friends around me all my life. The difference between now and then, the reason I only recently started writing seriously, lies in my psyche.
I’ve just now realized I have something to say. I look around. I listen. I hear what people around me are saying, their observations on the world. I take in the daily news by osmosis like everyone else. What I’ve found is that, for the most part, bad news travels fast and negative voices are the loudest. But if I’m not speaking up, counteracting all that negativity with a positive, hopeful outlook on things, then I am partly to blame. It’s the old adage: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. In her book, Susan Caine introduced us to The Power of Introverts. Even there, being an introvert herself, if she did not put herself out there and write a book, and then–the extreme jump out of the comfort zone–give a TED talk– the world would not have been graced by her exposition on the merits of the quieter class of individuals called “introverts.”
I’ve also realized I’ve got an intended audience. A few years ago, I started calling my mom every day. She is an excellent listener. I tell her nearly everything, every minute detail of my day. Why? Well, one reason is she’s my mom; she asks me questions no one else asks about the boring things. But I also realized that in order to convey the point I wanted my mom specifically to grasp, I had to set the scene in a certain way. She knows many of the characters in my real-life stories, and I know how intimately she knows these people and I am privy to her feelings about them. Therefore, I construct the stories I share with her with these aspects in mind. They affect my tone. Also, don’t we talk to our mothers in a way we don’t talk to other people? I started listening to myself tell her stories. I listened to her listening to me. I paid attention to the questions she asked and how my stories affected her. And then I asked myself questions. Was I accomplishing my goal? Did she grasp the purpose, the message, of my story? Did she respond as I had hoped she would?
This purposeful storytelling carried over into other conversations I would have with other people. Wanting to convey a particular message to a particular individual necessitated crafting a story in a specific way. It’s not rocket surgery. When you really think about it, don’t we all do this? Consider our audience as we construct our story? Sometimes but not always.
Sometimes we just want to “get it out.” We all have that friend who constantly complains. I often wonder what the point is. Many times I am too far away to solve the problem. Sometimes there is no solution. It’s just a voiced complaint. Is the hope to gain my sympathy? Empathy? Ok, sometimes I can offer that in response. But I wonder if this friend is even thinking about how I will respond to the complaint. Complaining is a knee jerk reaction. Have a problem, get upset, tell someone. I’m human. I get that. But I’m thinking (and you may say I’m dreamer) that if we can add a fourth step, it would make a big difference. If, before we text or blog or FaceBook, we pause and consider our audience. To whom are we speaking? Ask ourselves: How will what I am about to say affect the person to whom I am saying it? How would that small but significant act affect not only what we say but how we say it?
I suggest this might even change our mind and we’ll come to realize that this thing that was so utterly important a second ago, is, in the grand scheme of things, not worth sharing, doesn’t contribute anything valuable to society, will not edify our listener. And this would cause us to zoom out and maybe even reevaluate our purpose on the planet. What kind of messages do we want to spread? I love TED talks and I love their motto: “Ideas worth sharing.” If we pause before our outbursts to others and ask ourselves is this worth sharing, what would we say?
Maybe, like Edward White, his arm frozen holding the chalk at the blackboard, we should pause before that next angry text and ask to whom am I speaking? What do I really want to say? What message do I want to send out into the world? We all have something to say. Will it be poison or fruit?