Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Why writing is like riding a bike

Mountain, racing, motocross, tandem, unicycle. Whichever you prefer, it boils down to riding a bike. Writing is the same -- no matter the genre, it's all rooted in the same components. Let's break it down, bicycle-style.

Pick the right vehicle.

Mountain bikes are terrible commuting bikes. And you wouldn't want to tackle the Appalachian Trail with a banana-seat. In the same way, you need to know who the piece is reaching and what it's expected to accomplish before you take another step. To that end, you *must* define your audience before doing anything else. Who's reading it? What's the goal? What should the main takeaways be? Where will the piece appear? Identify these fundamentals, and you increase your chances of success on earlier tries.

Find the right fit.

Test ride, test ride, test ride. You'd never buy a style or brand that didn't resonate with you. So why subject your audience to an uncomfortable ride? Just as the bike shop measures you sit bones, height, and leg length, you too need to know what works for your audience. Corporate, fluffy, informative, informal -- find the tone that hit home on the first read. Don't know what your audience wants? Then research it. Read other notable publications your audience is reading. Watch what they watch. Investigate what makes them tick and turns them off. Then take your copy for a spin.

Determine your destination.

As romantic as it sounds to set off for a Sunday bike ride with no agenda in mind, you run the risk of exceeding your energy level, running out of water, or plain old getting lost. So imagine starting to write without any idea where you're headed; it carries equal threat of wasted energy. Here, outlines are invaluable for pieces of any length. Be they 400, 2000, or 10,000 words, jotting down the idea skeleton will help you frame the story, craft the flow, and build a cohesive piece. It will also identify snags early on and help you avoid writing around in circles. Talk about smoother roads!

Aim for quality.

Not all bikes are the sum of their parts. The quality of a bike is determined by its mechanics and components, so you can add certain details to maximize performance. Writing is no different. You don't want flashy gimmicks so much as you want appropriate style. Pick the techniques that will make your copy sing, whether it's a strong statistic, telling anecdote, or even a visual. Remember, a mediocre bike will eventually have to be replaced. But a high-quality one will be worth the initial investment -- which is exactly how you want your readers to feel when they take the time to read your piece and glean value from it.

Gear up for excitement!

You're more likely to stick to your exercise resolutions if you're excited about riding on your bike. And your audience is more likely to stick with your writing if they get a sense of your enthusiasm. Sure, some pieces will need drier tones, but that doesn't mean you need to make it boring. If you're not having fun writing it, chances are your readers won't enjoy reading it. So flex your creative muscles, revel in the exercise of crafting a quality piece, and watch your work flow from there.

Hat tip to Susannah for her helpful bike tips and inadvertant inspiration for this post :-)

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