You may have heard about the woman who wrote “You may want to marry my husband,” a post in the New York Times’ blog Modern Love. It appeared online March 3, and by March 13, the writer, Amy Krouse Rosenthal had died of ovarian cancer. But not without leaving behind a couple of gifts.
GIFT NO. 1: The post about her husband.
Here’s a taste:
“Here is the kind of man Jason is: He showed up at our first pregnancy ultrasound with flowers. This is a man who, because he is always up early, surprises me every Sunday morning by making some kind of oddball smiley face out of items near the coffeepot: a spoon, a mug, a banana.”
Instead of writing a straight-on love note to her husband, Krouse Rosenthal framed it as a swipe-right introduction to someone out there who might fall in love with him once she died. That is a gift to anyone who appreciates great writing.
GIFT NO. 2: The writers she inspired.
John Green, who wrote “A Fault in Our Stars,” said he owes his career to Krouse Rosenthal, as he explained on WBEZ, the Chicago NPR affiliate:
“I think Amy’s genius is in her ability to understand and imagine the reader. When I was younger, I kinda thought writing was about showing off or trying to prove to people that I was smart, and Amy showed me that writing was really about making gifts for people.”
This idea of writing as a gift to readers appeals to me for news writing, too. It forces us to engage with readers and to listen to them. More importantly, it forces us to think of readers first, before we even begin to write.
Would you really write a 30-inch routine council story if you put readers first?
Here are three ways you can ensure your writing is reader-focused:
- Before you write, make a list of questions readers might have about your topic. Consult other people in the newsroom to see what questions they might have. Now, make sure you answer those questions in your story.
- Have you been covering your beat for a while? Watch out for insider terms, jargon and acronyms. After you write, print a copy and circle every term, phrase or acronym that wouldn’t be known by most readers. Also, don’t assume your readers have the background they need to understand what you’re writing. Now rewrite for clarity.
- Consult analytics, not just to find out how many clicks you have (that just means the headline writer did her job). Pay attention to the stories people spent time reading. Look for patterns. Learn what your audience cares about, and focus your precious resources on that.
Most writers want people to read what they’ve written. The story should not be a flat, force-fed experience. Readers will respond when you, as the writer, bring the story to life and bring meaning to the life of readers. Your gift as a writer is to focus on the reader.
By the way, Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s gift in the New York Times drew about 4.5 million readers, according to her obituary. This reader-focused writing works.