Friday, May 15, 2015

Being in the World

Think of your reader. Imagine a reader who is just about to read your article. They came to it by some familiar route—a reference in another article, a search in the library's databases, a colleague's recommendation, an editor's request that they peer review your paper—or perhaps by mere chance. Something about the paper—its title or abstract or who has cited it—has told them that they should perhaps read it, even though they know a great deal about the subject already. They want to know what you have to add. Now, remember that reading, like writing, takes time. It's a process that unfolds in time—roughly speaking, one paragraph at a time, one minute at a time. The reader is giving you their attention; what are you going to do with it?

My suggestion is that you begin by showing the reader that you live in the same world and are concerned about some of the same things within it. If your paper is about managing teams, describe a world in which people are managed in teams. If you are writing about the dynamics of home ownership, describe a world in which people make decisions about whether to buy or sell their home, or whether to rent or buy. If you are writing about sensemaking in a crisis, write about a world in which organizations sometimes lose their minds under exceptional circumstances. In that first paragraph, you have about one minute of the reader's time, about 200 words, to show them that you know something about the world in which they live.

Tell them something uncontroversial. You don't want to spend the first minute your reader has given you arguing with them about what color the sky is. Tell them something they are immediately going to grant is true. Don't be shy. Tell them the Internet has changed the way businesses communicate with their customers. Yes, that seems pretty obvious and trivial but, if your paper is about the use of Twitter to sell shoes, that really is the world in which we live, a world full of businesses and customers, connected by the Internet. The reader is not learning something about the world yet, they are learning something about you. They are learning whether or not you have some interesting perspective on a world that obviously exists. Anyone can say that the Internet has changed the way businesses communicate with their customers. But only someone who knows the subject can write a full paragraph about it that is both interesting and informative.

You know when the Internet began to be used commercially, perhaps. Or who invented Twitter. Or you know, in detail, the story of a famous business that failed miserably because it did not understand how to use social media. Nothing in that paragraph needs to shock the reader in order to impress them. They should come out of that first minute, that first paragraph, thinking in a useful and detailed way about the world they already know they live in. You have brought that world to presence before them with your writing. Sure, it was always there. But now it has a certain urgency. It is something that is worth looking into, worth looking at a little more closely. It has become a worthy object of study.

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