Last week I wrote about ways writers can change the world. That piece was full of ideas for the types of writing/teaching you can do if you want to effect change. Today I want to look at exactly how you should write if you want to instigate change. What techniques are valuable? What do readers expect and respect? How should you approach this Herculean task? If you want your writing to change the world, you can’t just throw up some word vomit and expect it to stick.
How to Write to Change the World
- Pick subjects that matter. The first thing you must do is pick a subject that matters. Rants, gossip, and celebrity posts are not the sort of thing that will drive change. You want to pick a subject that people care about (or should care about) on a deep personal, local, or global level. Nothing in the world will change if all you do is repost memes, pass around “fake news,” or rail about the latest Kardashian foolishness. If you want to change the world, don’t waste your time with drivel. Pick something worthwhile.
- Stick to one main point. Many issues are complicated and have multiple sides. If you want people to stick with you and absorb your message, you need to stick to a point. Don’t overload readers with every problem. If, for example, you write about animal cruelty, make this week’s article about the seal trade and next week’s piece about puppy mills. Don’t try to cover everything in one shot. Your reader’s eyes will glaze over, they’ll get frustrated by the enormity of the problem, and throw their hands up and walk away. (For bonus points you can even break issues down into smaller chunks, if the topic allows.)
- Write about things you believe in. Passion for your topic makes you a better writer and keeps you committed to the long haul required for change. Don’t just adopt the cause du jour if you don’t strongly believe in it. First of all, your work will come across as lackluster and boring. Second, change doesn’t happen overnight. You’re going to be writing about this topic for years, so pick something that moves you to your core. Otherwise, you’ll give up before you ever have a chance of seeing results.
- Stick to the facts. Don’t get so mired in passion that you start ranting and forget (or misrepresent) the facts. Facts, (true and well presented), are your best weapons. While you want to show passion for your cause, people respond to facts, especially if your passion bleeds over into ranting. Most people don’t respond well to pieces coming form crazy-town, so save the conspiracy theories for dinner table conversation with like-minded friends. Plus, most publishers and editors don’t want rants. They want well-reasoned, factual pieces. If you want your work published, stick to the facts.
- Tell/show the truth. Along with sticking to the facts, you want to tell the truth about your cause. These sound the same, but they really aren’t. When you tell the truth, you share some of the emotional/personal/global ramifications of the issue, along with the facts. Let’s go back to the animal cruelty example. A fact might be, “X number of puppies die in puppy mills each year.” That’s great, but it’s not enough to move most people. Telling the truth might include showing pictures from a real puppy mill, or interviewing an animal rescuer who’s been inside a few mills. You don’t want to make an issue sound worse than it is (that’s making stuff up), but neither do you want to shy away from telling it like it is. The varnished, whitewashed truth doesn’t move people to your side. Seeing the problem “live and in person” just might.
- Constructively criticize the other side. This goes along with not ranting and sticking to facts, but don’t just say, “The other side sucks and has no clue.” That won’t change anyone’s mind. Take your opposition’s points and refute them logically and with facts from your side. Give people a reason other than, “Because I say so,” to choose your side over the other.
- Don’t preach or condescend. People aren’t idiots just because they don’t yet “get it.” Many people simply aren’t aware of important issues. Maybe they don’t have time to watch the news, or it’s not something that has touched their life. Maybe they’ve been conditioned to automatically choose the other side. There are a variety of reasons why people don’t grasp the importance of your issue. That doesn’t mean that they’re unintelligent, mentally disabled, or that their minds cannot be changed. Show respect. Don’t say, “You’re a fool if you don’t understand.” Think about how you’d like to receive information and write accordingly.
- Give people actionable steps. Just reading about an issue can be overwhelming. Your readers might not know what to do about it, so help them out. If you don’t they may not take any further action. Give them a list of people they can call or write. Present a list of volunteer or donation opportunities. List upcoming protests, rallies or meetings where they can make their opinion heard. Don’t just tell people about a problem. Give them some agency in fixing it.
- Meet your readers where they are. Tailor your prose and pieces to the understanding of your audience. Some publications cater to those already well-versed in a subject. For those, a simple top ten list is too basic. Other publications cater to the beginner and would love that piece. When writing to politicians or other leaders, try to get a sense of how much they know. If someone is sponsoring a bill, you would assume they know a fair amount. (I hope so, anyway.) If they’re just showing up to vote, assume they know a little less.
- Try for common ground. No issue is completely black and white, either or. Look for what you and your opposition have in common and work from there. Maybe an environmentalist can point out that he understands the need to build new factories because they bring jobs that people (even the environmentalist) might need. But, at the same time, are there not ways to reduce the impact of that factory, or repurpose an existing building that might make the environmentalist happy? Don’t just scream, “No!” Let people know you understand that there are multiple sides and try to find something you have in common. Compromise is often easier to gain than an outright reversal of opinion.
- Use the medium that will reach your audience. That may be books, a blog, social media posts, articles on well-reviewed sites or in magazines, trade journals, speeches/TED talks, etc. Likely it’s a combination. Figure out which media your intended audience typically consumes and meet them there.
- Address your audience appropriately. Yes, it’s tempting to address your least favorite politician as, “Dear Asshole,” but show some respect. Learn the proper form of address and use it. Otherwise, your email or letter is going in the bin upon receipt.
- Use proper language. When you’re writing on your own blog or for certain audiences, you can get away with some profanity, text speak, or slang. But when you’re writing something that you want taken seriously, clean it up and use proper language. People in positions of power don’t take garbage writing seriously. Also, don’t make threats, even in jest. That’s the fast track to jail because people take that stuff seriously these days.
- Get personal. Don’t be afraid to include your own experiences. Telling others about how an issue affects you personally is often the best way to connect. When people see that issues have personal ramifications, they may be more willing to help than when it all seems too big and global to matter. If a reader can see that the issue may affect them, too, so much the better.
Of course, change is a funny thing. You can do everything possible and still your issue will remain unsolved (or even get worse). And you may not see the change it your lifetime, but it may come after you’re gone. (Giving you gloating rights in the afterlife.) But writers are in a unique position to effect change. We possess skills needed in any change movement and our words have the power to create the strong emotional responses that lead to change. Writing is and always will be the key to change, even if in a social media world the messages are shorter, posted on websites, and passed around electronically instead of on paper. So get busy!