How will your words exist in the world?
something to think about before you write

A tattered sign inside a window, reading CAUTION SPIKES - through the window, a blurred view of a townscape with vaguely spiky buildings stretching upwards

Here’s a tip for anyone about to embark on some writing: before you start, have a think about where your words will live. How will they exist in the world?

How will people - the audience you want to reach - be able to find and read your words?

It’s helpful to know this, and the earlier you can pin it down, the better.

If you know what you’re writing, you’ll write it differently. A book isn’t the same as a series of essays, which isn’t the same as a collection of blog posts. Do you know yet which of those it will be? (The answer might be “Several” or perhaps even “All of them” - but even then, which will be the primary one? Which one would you point readers at first?

Will your words be printed, in a book or leaflet? Printed words are much harder to change, so you need to put more effort into getting them exactly right. Someone will have to do the work of design and layout, and it might help for you to be around to work with them, because sometimes it’s easier to re-write a sentence that doesn’t quite fit. So that has implications for your commitment and availability.

Will your words only exist digitally, on the internet? If they’re destined for the web, what links will you include? (Generally speaking, it’s good to link liberally, and helpful to add links as you write.) Web content needs a completely different set of skills to present and publish well, so you’ll need somebody on hand who knows how to do that.

If your words will be digital, what sort of digital? Are you creating a website? Or a PDF download? Or am image gallery? Or an interactive tool? How much of your work is writing, and how much of it is content design?

Does your team or organisation have all the capabilities necessary to get to the finished thing? Do you have people who know how to layout books for print, or know how to build websites? If not, you’ll need to plan ahead to get them involved. That affects your timeline and your budget.

It’s possible that at the start of the writing process, you won’t know how the words will exist in the world. That decision hasn’t been made. Perhaps it’s out of your hands. Perhaps for now you need to hedge your bets, and write in such a way that your words could be used in many different contexts and formats.

In my experience, it’s rare to have all of these answers, or even most of them, to begin with. But it’s important to stop and think about the options. Sometimes, doing that helps you avoid going down the wrong path; sometimes it even helps you decide what not to write. And it’s always a good idea to write less, if you can.

Filed under: notes
(24 November 2022)