Most of the time I’m converting lessons from business to writing. This time, I’m taking a piece of writing advice to apply to business.
Part of my job is reviewing documents that are going out to the users. Today, as I reviewed yet another watching-paint-dry user guide, I was desperately trying to think of something, ANYTHING, that would make basic user instructions sound less – dry. I mean, no one expects user instructions to be scintillating. Yet I couldn’t help but feel there had to be something better than the plodding list I was reading, even though there wasn’t really anything wrong I could point at.
As I started my review in earnest, I looked over the glossary of terms. I, of course, knew all those terms already. I debated if the given definition matched my understanding of those items garnered from months of use of the product – and that’s when it hit me. Why was I reading a list of definitions before I learned anything else?
A glossary is backstory.
You see, it’s common for beginning writers to shove backstory into their first chapter. “But the reader needs to know this first,” the writers say, usually with raised voices. They are positive if the readers aren’t data dumped 500 years of international history they simply won’t understand why the main character is squatting in a foxhole in the first scene. Except the reader doesn’t really need to know the entire geo-political situation to get that the character is a solider in a war. They’ll find out about those 500 years leading up to that foxhole later, when they have context to hang it on, not to mention a reason to care.
Business writing, I realized, is full of backstory. I can’t count the number of trainings I’ve taken that start with a history lesson on how the thing I’m studying came to be. Or sets of instructions that begin with a glossary of terms I didn’t know, or have a reason to care about yet. I won’t even start on the emails rehashing an entire intra-office saga before getting to the point. What’s worse, organizational style guides act as a sort of corporate raising of the voice, encouraging writers to load up on the backstory because it makes things “clearer.”
It’s human nature. When we tell a story, we want to start with the first thing that happened. But stories can’t all start at the beginning of time and cover every detail contributing to the current situation. Somewhere along the line, we have to leave a few things out. That’s where the art comes in – deciding what the reader needs to know right now, and what they can discover later.
Why can’t good story structure be a part of business communications? It would certainly spice up the work day to get emails that first pose a dilemma, then lead you to the proposed solution. It’d be easier if definitions of new terms grew organically out of the places in the guide where you needed them. I like to craft emails full of boring dates and instructions into thematic narratives, if only to relieve my own tedium while writing the stupid things. Well that, and it gives me an excuse to use the word Padawan at work.
Perhaps business communications can’t all become high-fantasy novels, full of noble quests, or mystery novels, with clues peppered through email chains to a triumphant reveal. The next memo across my desk definitely won’t be a riveting space opera. But couldn’t we at least stop front loading the backstory?