Surprise and delight: ten tips for writers

Woman holding a lit lightbulbThere’s a great post on Creating Passionate Users about User delight and the guy from the train phenomenon. My old french teacher, who was also a poet, used to come out with things like: “and now Matthew will give us his translation of this paragraph with acrobats and high kicking.” I don’t know where he got it from but the fireworks of his everyday speech in the classroom are still with me 20 years later.

Anyhow here are my top tips for writers to create the same kind of surprise and delight:

  1. Go out of context. Use a phrase that doesn’t belong. I like the legal text when you install Google Desktop: “Please read this carefully. It’s not the usual yada yada.”
  2. Understate. “It is never very difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.” [P. G. Wodehouse]
  3. Quote well, but briefly. In business writing, an honest, human quote can be very effective. PR people make this difficult. Has anyone seen a genuinely good quote (as opposed to a Frankenquote) in a press release?
  4. Killer ledes. Open with a sentence that grips the reader. P.J.O’Rourke is the master of this: “Skiing consists of wearing $3,000 worth of clothes and equipment and driving 200 miles in the snow in order to stand around at a bar and drink.”
  5. Write 50 alternatives. My guru Donald Murray (see my review of Writing to Deadline) suggests drafting 50 alternative ledes.
  6. Use fewer words. If the reader thinks she has to wade through twenty pages and you give an excellent one page summary, think how happy she’ll be.
  7. Get someone else to read it first. What may make perfect sense to you might be a mystery to normal people. So get a normal person’s take on it.
  8. Be yourself. Although teachers and editors try to stamp out all traces of your personality from your writing, actually readers want to know you. Provide a human context by including yourself in your work.
  9. Read good writing. I recommend to my business clients that they read good non-fiction prose. This is because it has similar objectives to most corporate writing: to persuade and inform. I suggest The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, The Economist. Anyone got any other recommendations?
  10. Involve the reader. Does anyone have any other tips or suggestions?

22 Responses to Surprise and delight: ten tips for writers

  1. The Goo June 8, 2006 at 1:50 pm #

    Number Nine may be the most important key to good writing. I also suggest Harper’s. Also, The Atlantic has a great monthly column on what makes good writing good, which is always worthwhile.

  2. Tim June 8, 2006 at 1:53 pm #

    Tips: use a grammar checker (or a pal) to check for easy-to-miss typos like ‘is’ and ‘are’ (as in ‘….fireworks…is..’) (OK, OK, we do it all the time).

  3. Matthew Stibbe June 8, 2006 at 2:21 pm #

    I write my blog in straight HTML (how geeky is that?) so there’s no helpful Word-style spell-checker and grammar-checker.

    Anyhow, Robert Scoble says that blogs without typos look fake!

    But thanks for the spot and I’ve corrected it now.

  4. eddy June 16, 2006 at 10:09 am #

    What is a “lede”? (Tip 4) Did you mean “lead”?

  5. Matthew Stibbe June 16, 2006 at 10:17 am #

    Lede is a US journalist term for the opening sentence. You could spell it lead too.

  6. Rose December 18, 2007 at 12:07 am #

    I suggest “Anne of Green Gables.”

  7. Chris K December 21, 2007 at 7:33 pm #

    Number 1 (going out of context) is a great addition to the list. Number 2 (understating) too: perhaps something about cutting out adjectives. With writing, we always suggest not being scared of having an opinion – especially when it comes to blogs and the like. Also, I think personality is important. With the rise of electronic media, we have more reason to be informal rather than corporate. Boo to stuffy, pinstriped language.

  8. Catherine December 21, 2007 at 8:52 pm #

    Great tips, mostly. And yet:

    No. 8: Also, please know when to *stop* going on about yourself. In some contexts, it’s completely inappropriate. More than two “I”s in a paragraph generally makes me want to turn green, burst out of my shirt in a muscular fashion and tear the medium to shreds, while shouting “RAAAAAARGH SHUT UP YOU EGOTISTICAL WANKER RAAAARGH.”

    That’s enough about myself in this whole comment.

    Also, no. 9: yes, but not the Economist. They’re a dreadful bunch of self-satisfied bastards. Have a flip through any edition from the last ten years: every column or feature will at least once have to stop and remind you how very, very clever it is. Possibly while pushing its glasses up its nose and smirking.

    Wodehouse manages witty and satirical without smug. That is genius. See also: Raymond Chandler.

  9. Eggy Brian December 22, 2007 at 10:29 am #

    lol i fink writting is dead gud lol, and u can be well clever. i do my own blog and i allways write with a lickle style! if your clever with words then it maks you liek a million times more redable! allso use loads of smilies! =)

    this is a cute 1 ^_^

  10. Andy Uber December 22, 2007 at 11:53 am #

    Don’t try to be politically correct and insert “she” where the generic “he” used to be used. Even worse don’t use the awful compound “he or she” (or “she or he”). Use “they” or reword the sentence to avoid it altogether.

    Seeing a sentence like: “If the reader thinks she has to wade through twenty pages and you give an excellent one page summary, think how happy she’ll be.” is just jarring.

    Why not?: “If the reader thinks they have to wade through twenty pages and you give an excellent one page summary, think how happy they’ll be.

    (Nb. I also leave both the toilet seat AND lid down)

  11. Exasperated Educator December 22, 2007 at 1:09 pm #

    You talk about originality being yourself and then come up with the pathetically stereotyped comment that teachers “try to stamp out all traces of your personality from your writing”. You rather undermine your own ability to advise on creating “surprise and delight” when you resort to this sort of attitude. Some of us work bloody hard to bring out the originality and personality of our students – there’d be little point in teaching if our sole aim was to do otherwise.

  12. Matthew Stibbe December 22, 2007 at 1:22 pm #

    Suddenly there are a lot of comments on this post. To try to answer a few of them:

    Exasperated educator. Sorry. Didn’t mean you personally.

    Andy. I quite like the ‘surprise’ of using She when people expect the generic ‘he’ or the tortured ‘they’ but everyone to their own, I guess.

    Eggy. I fink u is clever 2.

    Catherine. The Economist may be a little smug (I don’t think so but I can see why you might) but it’s not the only suggestion. It’s a fair point about too much ‘I’. The art of good writing is probably to find the right amount. I keep seeing stuff written by companies that totally avoids the first person plural or singular and puts everything in the passive voice. I think it reflects a culture of blame-avoidance and passivity as well as bad writing. I think this was what I was trying to get to.

    Chris. Boo to stuff pinstriped language – I couldn’t agree more.

  13. Martin December 22, 2007 at 6:23 pm #

    Remember that written language can (and usually should) be just as chatty and informal as the spoken word. So if you find yourself writing ‘prior to the commencement of’, when you would say ‘before’, change it.

  14. Adrian McD December 26, 2007 at 12:43 am #

    Here’s one for you- get phunky with your writing; go freestyle. Use interesting ~~ grammar and punctuation points. It helps introduce suspense and is DRAMATIC in its result.

    FO shizzle.

  15. Janet February 3, 2009 at 6:52 pm #

    Exasperated educator – I agree with you on your point. Afterall, the mark of a great teacher improves one’s writing without CHANGING his style. (or do you prefer “her” style?)

  16. Janete Stibbe April 28, 2009 at 6:54 pm #

    Quero saber mais de vc Matthew Stibbe, você conhece os Stibbe do Brasil?

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