Do You Know When to Shut Up?

Shut up

There are writers. And then there are writers.

But I was a cartoonist.

Let me take you way back to the year 1988 for a lesson in shutting up.

I was drawing cartoon strips for a very popular newspaper called ‘Mid-Day’. And every day, I’d draw a new strip, and submit it to the newspaper. And since it was back in the days before the Internet, I often had to get on a train, travel 20 miles, and walk for 15 minutes to get to the newspaper office before the 7:30 am deadline.

One day I ran into the editor. And he commended me on my cartoons.

“But there’s one thing you can do to make them better,” he said.

You need to respect the intelligence of the reader

“You need to write the joke so that the reader almost gets it,” he said. “That way the reader anticipates the humor and has twice the laugh. If you go into too much detail and explain the joke in your comic strip, you lose out on the punch. The reader feels cheated. And it’s all because you haven’t respected their intelligence.”

As a writer you need to respect the intelligence of the reader as well.

In your writing, you’ll often find that the story you’re telling is coming to an obvious end. And so, you simply leave out the obvious end. You simply let the reader make up the story in their own mind.

So how do you know when to shut up? Let’s look at an example.

Here’s an example from an article I recently wrote:

My friend Karen has no problem exercising. Rain, cold, even boiling hot weather doesn’t stop her from putting on those sneakers and bounding out the door.

I have no such luck. I hate exercise. Every cell in my body rises up in mutiny at the thought of doing any repetitive movement.

The flip side is that I love food. And as you probably know, I’m fussy about cooking a variety of great food.

This is why I had to invent the ‘chocolate motivator.’

You now know I love food. And hate exercise. What happens next?

You as a reader already know the answer, so I have to respect your intelligence. Which is why instead of belaboring how many pounds I put on, I simply move ahead in a swift, nimble way. Your brain fills in the blanks. And whether you consciously think about it or not, you realize I’m respecting your intelligence.

Respecting the intelligence of the reader also allows for drama in your writing.

As you noticed, having spared you the details of the whole weight issue, I went on to talk about the chocolate motivator. Now I’ve got you even more interested, because you want to know more about the chocolate motivator.

You can now use something really unusual to let the customer slide through your article, or you can even use something the reader isn’t expecting at all.

Let’s have a look at another example:

My friend Karen has no problem exercising. Rain, cold, even boiling hot weather doesn’t stop her from putting on those sneakers and bounding out the door.

I have no such luck. I hate exercise. Every cell in my body rises up in mutiny at the thought of doing any repetitive movement.

The flip side is that I love food. And as you probably know, I’m fussy about cooking a variety of great food.

And despite this perfect storm, I lost six pounds in less than two weeks.

And it’s all due to the invention of the ‘chocolate motivator.’

See what happened above?

In your writing, you can respect the reader, and yet still bring in something so disconnected that the reader is yanked out of their mid-afternoon snooze. Suddenly they’re paying close attention. And then having that attention, you lead them merrily through the article using drama and flow.

Writing with drama and flow is a learned skill

You need to know when to tell your story.

And when to shut up.

But mostly you need to respect the intelligence of your reader. It’s only then that you get the reader’s respect back.

About the Author: Sean D’Souza offers a free report on ‘Why Headlines Fail’ when you subscribe to his Psychotactics Newsletter. Check out his blog, too.

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Comments

  1. Great article. As you said, it’s a delicate balance between getting your ideas out there and saying too much. How much is too much? There’s no clear answer. For me, personally, I like both short concise posts and lengthier story-driven articles. I can and am in the mood for both at different times. It really depends on the topic being discussed and the skill of the writer.

    I (attempt) to tell a story in everything that I write, letting my personality shine through, but giving the readers something to relate to and something to take away. Easier said than done, but I think that mix is what most of us strive for.

  2. The movie, Second Hand Lions goes too far. I stop the DVD right at the time the phone rings at Walter’s studio. I don’t really want to verify the stories are true; I want to believe they are in spite of the evidence.

  3. Knowing what not to say is such an important part of effective writing. I always say that the power of storytelling is in what the reader tells and convinces herself of. If you say too much, you ruin it.

    On the other hand, people routinely leave important stuff out. They don’t say enough to support their case, or they assume the reader gets something that they really don’t.

    It’s a fine line.

  4. Thanks, Sean, great insights.

    Your editor’s advise to “…write the joke so that the reader almost gets it,” reminds me of an acting adage (My first career was in theater).

    In rehearsing emotionally wrenching scenes, our teachers told us, “Don’t cry–let the audience cry. If you cry, the audience won’t cry.”

    The audience wants to see characters struggle with feeling, but not wallow in it. When the audience sees a character struggle, they empathize and participate cathartically.

    When actors emote too much on stage, they hog the emotions, leaving nothing for the audience to do but passively watch.

    True with writing as well… Perhaps why Hemingway and many greats were verbal minimalists.

  5. That is…interesting. I’ve never thought about writing as knowing when to shut up before. I do know there’s a balance between saying too much and saying too little; as Brian says, it’s a fine line. But that’s a new way of looking at it, for me.

    Gerard, you got me thinking. That’s been a minor pet peeve of mine for awhile now, when movies over-explain. Knowing how much to tell and knowing when to end…those are two vital skills for any kind of writing.

  6. One of the reasons (I’ve mentioned above) that people go off track when writing is because they feel they have to ‘tell the entire story’.

    But another reason why writing goes off track is simply because you merge several plots into one piece of information.

    Now TV soaps do this merging day after day. But they follow a very clear pattern of connectors and disconnectors. And they also have the plots pre-engineered. You can indeed have one or two plots in a single article, and your first skill needs to be how to recognise the plots as they appear.

    One way to handle too many plots (and I do this) is to just move the second plot away to be used in another article or another chapter. Another way to handle the plot is to recognise it’s emerging, and then to use ‘connectors’ and ‘disconnectors’ to weave the reader in and out of the information.

    Watch a soap tonight.
    You’ll get a great education on how it’s done.

  7. In great communication you juggle balancing – what to say, what not to and at the same time how much and in what way to say… Well a bit confusing :) but comes in quiet easy with 2 basic things
    1. Practice
    2. Concentrating on the Listener

    @Brian
    You said people at times either leave imp stuff or overuse it. Would like to know that as a blogger you know that the readers are from various calibers and with diff intelligence levels. How can you than gauge the level and stuff to be communicated ? Any tips ?

  8. It is the power of omission… your readers’ imagination is greater than your talent for telling a tale can be the hardest thing to accept but they will love you for it!

    Sara @ iGoMogul

  9. BizDharma, that’s one of the toughest parts of this. We know our readers are at all sorts of levels, and we want to serve them all.

    But that’s often impossible.

    So from an editorial standpoint, you have to choose your ideal reader, and speak to him. There will be consequences, so choose carefully.

  10. I learned how to do this by reading great fiction and dissecting how it works. Especially thrillers. I’ve learned more about keeping attention from Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Connelly, etc. then I have ever picked up from a book on writing. Spend enough time in the company of master storytellers, and it just kind of seeps into your subconscious.

    PS: Awesome headline.

  11. Thanks Brian that was quiet quick ;)

    On a further note, I believe a bit of research on the comments you get on your post OR mails or whatever feedback system that you have on your blog can hint you the kind of readers you get.

    But as you finally said we need to be cautious while we gauge that.

    Thanks once again !

  12. Hi,

    Great article. Just wanted to say that I learned something from it. I have to admit that there are cases when I over do it and try to over-explain the story. Thanks for the tip.

    @TomaBonciu

  13. Allow me to add another aspect ratio : boost to our beloved egos” when we get the knack of a joke, it cushions our egos and being pleased with ourselves we move ahead with a new interest anticipating to conquer more…

    Amy Dyslex

  14. Great headline and great subject. Reinforces the discipline of the craft and need to know the reader well done.

  15. I hate exercise too. I hate it so much that my normal daily workout routine consists of assorted neckrolls and shoulder schrunchies done to in an attempt to rid myself of the knots in my neck that I get from sitting in this chair for too long. Thank God for horses and the three poopy stalls I clean every day.

    That being said, I am working hard on “drama and flow.” The biggest problem I am currently having is in coming up with good titles. I assume the need to shut up and respect the reader’s intelligence can also be applied when writing a title. I read and re-read the article snippet and came up with this title: MUTINY AND THE CHOCOLATE MOTIVATOR.
    Am I on the right track or should I not be absent for my next writing class?

  16. The chocolate motivator gripped my attention. So much so that I read the preceding story excerpt three times. What a great illustration of when to shut up.

  17. This sounds hard, but I’ll give it a shot:

    “So I have this blog for young entrepreneurs that I’m trying to get rolling, but it’s a square.”

    How was that?

  18. …but my foot tastes so GOOD!

  19. I think it really comes back to knowing your reader. I wouldn’t have a clue what half the tech blogs are talking about but I’m not their target market so it doesn’t matter. If they dumbed it down for the likes of me they’d lose the majority of their readership through sheer boredom!

    Likewise, I’m sure there are plenty of people who don’t get the humour I use on my blog (probably the techies), whereas my readers do.

  20. Reminds me of a favorite saying of mine: “Shut the Front Door!” (say it out loud)

    Good point and well taken. I’ll usually write my post then re-read and cut half of it out after realizing I am halfway to writing War and Peace. I’ve noticed that I, personally, stick to reading blogs that are easy on the eye, and get to the point quickly.

    The only time a very direct post bothers me is when it’s on something kind of techy that is hard to understand. (Umm, that would be most techy stuff). It might take more than one sentence to get absorb the process. Frustrate me and I will go looking elsewhere for my answer.

  21. Another excellent tip!
    This makes me more careful now.

  22. @Jackie: Titles or headlines are tricky. You can’t load too much ‘curiosity’ or ‘too little.’ If it’s too curious it comes out as ‘too clever’ and no one reads further.

    The length of the headline rarely matters. What matters is how you construct it. So if you have ‘mutiny and the chocolate motivator’ then I’m lost. But if you have ‘How the chocolate motivator gets you thin’ then I’m alerted. This is because I know one of the factors…i.e. getting thin.

    So if you want to create curiosity in a headline, keep one factor ‘curious’ and the other factor ‘known.’

    Here are two articles that were published in Copyblogger that tackle this issue of how to write headlines that create curiosity.

    Article 1: http://www.copyblogger.com/write-powerful-headlines/
    Article 2: http://www.copyblogger.com/how-a-few-measly-words-can-dramatically-improve-your-blog-headline-and-content/

  23. @sami @coree @anyone who thought this post was about editing. It’s not about the editing or the dumbing down of articles or information.

    Instead it’s about giving 90% of the information, and letting the reader ‘imagine the rest.’

    So here’s another example:
    Imagine a toe. Your big toe. Imagine a hammer. Imagine the hammer headed towards the toe. What happens next?

    I don’t have to explain.
    Your brain has filled in the details.
    This post was about filling in the details. The ‘shutting up’ part was not about editing or dumbing down, but about knowing when to stop over-explaining.

    So I’ll be quiet now :)

  24. I agree with Sami, to know our readers first is important in this case: the regulars and (hopefully) the new visitors too. Would definitely love to spice up the content a little sometimes, and loosen up a bit. I wrote more about pillar posts, and reviews for social media apps/blogging etc, now it’ll be a challenge to use this trick in my next post writing. Well, certainly don’t wish to be ‘Boring’, but we’re not hopeless right? ^^

    @wchingya
    social media/blogging

  25. Well expressed post. I have the problem of over explaining in my writing. I think we feel we have to over explain to ensure people understand, rather than giving our readers credit for their intelligence and letting them use their imagination to fill in the blanks.

  26. By not telling too much, it allows the reader to be more engaged with your copy. I try to do this myself. I suppose I’m successful to varying degrees. Certainly a good reminder.

  27. Thanks for the article. I always knew this was true, but couldn’t articulate as well as you. I look forward to more of your articles Sean.

  28. This is very similar to being an effective musician, and in my case a drummer.

    It’s not the notes that you play that make you a good musician, it’s the notes that you don’t play. The empty spaces are what really makes the music. Not a ton of notes.

    This can be seen in life as well. All matter is made up of mostly what?

    …empty space :)

    Great article

  29. But it’s sooo hard to shut up when you have so much to say!!

    There’s a very valuable lesson here for me and while one side of the fence loves how I link and elaborate for them, the other side of the fence hates it.

    I have to admit that my time has become more valuable and rather than explaining what I want to convey, I simply link to another source and let them make up their own mind.

  30. I’m sorry, but I actually don’t think this article made the point very well. You run a very distinct risk of leaving out crucial information by trying to be so clever. You’ve done it in this article, in fact. And even though there are plenty of “yeah-great-article” bandwagon-jumpers, I found this article to be extremely poor by Copyblogger standards.

    Take the first example. I had no idea the missing piece of information was “the weight issue”. How was I supposed to know that? Because you said you didn’t like to exercise — and you like cooking? No. That’s too big a leap. I know plenty of people who like cooking, don’t like to exercise, and have no problems with their weight. You thought you were being clever, and in the process, you “shut up” a vital piece of information.

    Your overall message is valuable enough, and that message is “respect your audience’s intelligence”. But I’m afraid this article has only proven than “shutting up” can also lead to reader confusion and a tendency to obfuscate concepts. (And I used the word “obfuscate” as a nod to the intelligence you’re sure everybody has.)

    Be clear. Be concise. Be complete. And be very cautious when trying to be clever.