Good writing doesn’t start with words.
It starts with an understanding of your audience. That’s because good writing gets the right point to the right person.
If you’re looking to improve your writing, I’d like to offer you my method of making that connection. I call it the bricks and mortar approach — and it’s a technique I developed while working for many different audiences, writing for places as disparate as Men’s Health and Entrepreneur, and it’s now how I compose pretty much everything I write (including these newsletters!).
Bricks and mortar help me be of value to you, the reader.
In short, it’s a process for toggling back and forth between information and framing, where I take the facts and explain how they are applicable to you, specific reader I have in mind. And if you adopt this strategy for yourself, your writing can be more powerful, too.
Before we jump into mechanics, let’s start with an example: my recent Entrepreneur profile on Jimmy Fallon. It was based on an interview about his career and how he worked his way toward his particular style and entertainment offering. “Why should someone care about him?” he wondered. “Who is Jimmy Fallon?”
I could have just printed my interview with him and called it a day. And you would have probably come away thinking, “Now I’ve learned about Jimmy Fallon. How nice for him that he figured out how to appeal to the masses and become famous.”
That’s a fine takeaway, and would have been useful in a magazine called Jimmy Fallon Monthly. But I was writing the piece for an audience of people who want to build things for themselves. Facts about Jimmy alone do not provide them with enough value.
The person or company I’m profiling can rarely do this themselves. Jimmy Fallon is not a traditional business person — he doesn’t even talk business, per se. But even when I do profile a CEO, they’re often so in the weeds on their own business that they’re unable to articulate value for others.
That’s why it’s up to me to bridge that gap. Instead of just leaving the facts where they are, I constantly contextualize them so readers can apply the lessons from Jimmy’s life to their own lives.
The facts are the bricks. The context is the mortar.
To see it in action, take a look at this excerpt from the story. Jimmy had just told me that, after leaving Saturday Night Live, he had aspired to be a movie star.
“So I ask Fallon: “If somebody had asked why that was your goal, would you have had an answer?”
He pauses. Three seconds of silence.
“No,” he finally says. “I’m trying to think, why would that be my goal? Maybe, from all the books and articles that I’d read, the trajectory of someone famous from Saturday Night Live is to do movies. It’s just the path.”
Want to hear the opposite of a self-directed mission? To hear an entrepreneur’s greatest trap? Four words, right there: “It’s just the path.” Not your path. Simply the path, a path, some path, a clearing that other people make for their own purposes, not for yours. That is the path through an unimaginative life and away from the satisfaction of a risk taken.”
The quotes are all bricks. That final paragraph about “it’s just the path” is the mortar. I am literally alternating paragraphs here: One paragraph of Fallon reporting, one of interpretation for the audience. Back and forth, brick, mortar, brick, mortar.
If you read or listen to almost anything I create, you’ll see that I’m doing that all the time.
I’m not saying this is the only way to write. And I’m not saying that this particular kind of overt turning towards the audience makes sense in every context, or for every reader. It does not. Obviously, for example, newspaper writing requires a very different approach. But the principle remains constant: All writing, whether it’s an instruction manual or a magazine article, must be for a specific audience and purpose.
If you’re not directly aware of the intended reader — whether it’s a budding entrepreneur or the new owner of the espresso machine — then a piece of writing is just going to be a jumble of facts, without any clear purpose to them.
For example, let’s just flip to page 12 of the Breville Barista Pro instruction manual. It tells me the machine includes 4 filter baskets; 2x Wingle Wall and 2x Dual Wall. Those are some hefty bricks that I have no idea what to do with — until I see the mortar later on the page: “Regardless of whether you use Single Wall or Dual Wall filters baskets, use the 1 CUP basket with brewing a single cup and the 2 CUP basket when brewing two cups or a stronger single cup or mug.”
Mortar is an amazing substance. It allows you to take facts and make them relevant to any audience. For example, I could have taken that same Jimmy Fallon interview and crafted it into a story for Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, or any other number of outlets. All I’d have needed is different mortar.
You can’t just stack bricks. If you do that, your wall topples. Bring in mortar and you can craft your structure, and make sure it holds up in the right way for the right people.
That’s how you construct solid communication. Try it, and feel the connections build around you.