Google+.My dad wasn’t a writer. But he gave me some of the best writing advice ever, and I’m going to share it with you.
The advice came in a telephone call. At the time I was a reporter, and I also wrote an oh-so-clever weekly humor column. My dad, being a voracious news consumer, and a proud parent, would never miss reading whatever I wrote. My regular news and feature stories — no problem.
It was the column that sometimes gave him pause. It was so “clever” that he didn’t always get it. When that happened too many times, he decided to call me up at my desk. “What exactly are you getting at?” he asked. “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.”
So I explained what I was trying to say, initially convinced that like a good joke, humor writing shouldn’t have to be explained, that you either got it — and I knew there were people who got it — or you didn’t. I tried to tell my dad, without making him mad, that some humor worked for some people, but not for others.
That’s when he let it fly. “You work for a newspaper, son. You got to put the hay down where the horses can get it.”
That little smack upside the head was a wake-up call. It made me imagine being a farm hand with a pitchfork, pulling hay down from a loft to the floor of a barn, where the horses could get it. Amazingly, my dad had cut right through all of my pretensions of being the hip humorist, and made me see the point:
If people don’t understand what you write, what good is it?
As I said, my dad was not a writer. But he was a reader, and he was the kind of former country boy who had once taught his young son the only repeatable French he had picked up during the war, just because he believed that people should be able to communicate. It’s about transmitting the message, breaking down the code, putting the hay down where the horses can get it.
Anybody who writes for anyone other than himself (or herself) can learn that lesson, whether you’re a journalist, a business leader, a blogger, or a script writer. If you don’t transmit your message to the intended audience in a way that they can decode it, your communication has been in vain. In a way, it is the truth behind what good comedians know: if you have to explain the joke, if people don’t get what’s supposed to be funny, then maybe you didn’t tell it right. Or maybe you’re telling it to the wrong audience.
If your goal is to get a point across, don’t obscure it with big words mainly chosen to show how clever you are. Don’t make your audience reach too high to get what you’re trying to give them. Put the hay down where the horses can get it.