An occasional curve


For the last couple of days I’ve been talking about mixing things up. Vary the way you structure your sentences, sections, and chapters. Insert images where they pay off but not all the time. Today I want you to think about varying reader expectation as well.

I had a teacher in graduate school who loved to tell the story of a couple on a honeymoon. They were visiting a place the husband had been before. As they would head from place to place he would say to his new bride "you’re going to love this place" and then proceed to tell her about it. On the third day they set out on another excursion and she looked at him to hear what she was going to love that day. He looked at her and shrugged. "I don’t know anything about this place. I’ve never been here before." Suddenly she was interested.

We do that when we write. We present an example that works and another example that works and soon the reader is nodding their head because the examples always work. Every once in a while lead your readers into a brick wall. Show them how this example that should have worked didn’t work and what they need to do to fix it. You are teaching them how to get out of trouble when something common goes wrong—this is a huge gift.

You can actually get people to read your writing more carefully if you deviate from their expectations. Here’s a fun example from Dave and Andy’s weekly newsletter yesterday announcing a 40% sale on all Prag titles. At the end they have to include all of the boring details so that people don’t call up and complain that they didn’t know when the sale was ending or which titles were excluded. Here’s how the fine print paragraph ends:

"Paper books should not be used in water or in damp locations. eBooks require electricity; batteries are not included. Publisher cannot be held responsible for your increased knowledge, popularity, or general awesomeness as a direct or consequential result of experiencing our books and screencasts."

I caught myself in the middle of the fine print stopping and going back to the beginning. I’d been reading along without paying much attention and then I got to the words "damp locations" and stopped and reread the paragraph from the beginning. Very clever.

By the way, in a shameless plug, Pomodoro Technique Illustrated is our third Life title and it along with the Passionate Programmer and Land the Tech Job you Love are included in the sale. You should buy several copies!

This post originally appeared in the Pragmatic Life blog.