This has been making the rounds of the blog world and it is simply too good not to share.

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September 8th is International Literacy Day. I’m the first to admit, I take literacy for granted. The child of parents who read constantly and widely, I read voraciously. I read in two languages. I read fiction. I read non-fiction. I read almost anything I can get my hands on. I read daily.

To go through a day without a book in hand (or on screen) at some point feels… odd. Disjointed. My job depends on my being literate. My interactions with my children are the richer for my being literate. My conversations with friends are all the more eclectic thanks to the wide variety of things my literate friends read.

When my son was younger and struggled through his initiation into the complexities of the written codification of our spoken languages, the possibility that he would perhaps not become literate never crossed our minds. It was simply a skill that he must acquire, and so we threw massive amounts of time and patience and perserverence his way until, in time, he figured it out. We will continue to throw time and patience and a wide variety of books at our kids until they are able to read and comprehend and argue about anything we throw at them.

Literacy… matters.

And yet, in this modern world we live in, millions of people are not literate or are barely literate. 774 million adults, to be precise, two-thirds of them women.

Think about that number for a minute. Seven hundred and seventy four million. That’s more than twenty-four times the population of Canada.

Oh, but that’s mostly third-world countries, you say. Big populations. Poor access to education. Not somewhere prosperous and educated like Canada, of course.

Wrong.

48% of adult Canadians have low literacy skills. That’s almost half the adults in this country.

I had no idea.

There is a very thought-provoking post over at No Impact Man today: http://noimpactman.typepad.com/blog/2010/04/what-are-we-coming-to.html

Intent. Intentions. Goals. Doing things with meaning. With focus. With purpose. Without distractions. Absorbed in the moment.

I believe life is a choice. That how we lift ourselves up spiritually and emotionally, how we grow our body of knowledge and our wealth of experiences… it is something that must be undertaken intentionally. We need to decide what we want our lives to look like and throw our whole being into each moment while making it happen. To be determined, and present, and attentive.

To be intent in both senses of the word.

Are you intent?

It seems like a simple question. Why do you read? Why open a book and spend time with its contents?

As a writer, I often assume I know what my reader wants to get out of my work. That leads me to assume that I know why they are reading my work. To be fair, I am a technical writer. I write user manuals and help files and white papers and sales documents. My audience is, by definition, interested in finding out information about the products I am documenting.

Or are they?

What makes someone choose to read a help file instead of the printed manual that came in the box? What makes them read a white paper or a case study before they make a purchasing decision? What makes them not read one or the other? Do the readers themselves even know?

The question becomes all the more relevant when you consider writers and readers of fiction. Why read a fictional story? Why choose one type of fiction over another? Why stay up until 4 o’clock in the morning reading one book, and throw the other back in the library bag after a mere three pages?

Why do we read?

Anthropologists have documented a long, long tradition of storytelling among all the peoples of the world. From long before there were printed books, we have gathered together to share stories and pass down knowledge and wisdom. It is easy to forget that writing itself is a relatively new phenomenon, and that even after the invention of books, literacy was not a widespread phenomenon. Even among the literate, personal libraries containing dozens if not hundreds of books were the exception, not the rule. Yet we’ve always had stories. And, as literacy has spread and books have become commonplace, we read voraciously. As a species, we see stories as something not just to enjoy, but to devour.

But why?

Writer, editor, and agent Donald Maas (yes, that Donald Mass) has a theory. In his free e-book The Career Novelist, he states:

We need storytellers. In our world of dislocation, of declining institutions, it is imperative that the values that bind us together be reaffirmed. One of the primary ways we do this, I believe, is through the stories that we tell to one another.

I agree wholeheartedly. I read to learn things. I read to visit new places in my imagination. I read to escape everyday life and spend a little time in a worldview that may be completely unlike my own. I read to share joy and laughter with my children. I read to find solutions to problems. I read to learn what others consider problems, and how they have found the solutions that work for them. I read to have my emotions touched.  I read to feed my imagination (not that it’s ever needed a lot of help). I read because not reading makes me feel restless and disconnected from the world outside my window. I read because it brings me peace and hope for the future.

I talk to friends and colleagues and even complete strangers for precisely the same reasons. Hearing their stories, learning of their experiences feeds exactly those same needs and desires and brings me exactly the same emotional satisfaction that reading does. For really, what is sharing conversation other than telling a story?

What I find the most significant is that the reasons I feel compelled to read are also the very same reasons that I feel compelled to spend time outdoors, immersed in the natural world. If I have not spent enough time feeling the sun on my shoulders and the wind in my hair and the dirt under my feet and my fingernails, I feel lost and edgy and restless. The world around us has a story to tell every day. Every time I listen to it, I find myself returning home with a heart filled with peace and hope for the future.

Stories have power. The spoken word, the written, and even the unspoken… it is the power and vision and unifying nature of stories that I find so compelling. That draws me back into them, day after day.

Why do you read?

From the New Zealand Book Council. Well worth watching. (Don’t worry, it’s short, and totally ok to watch at work.)

Let’s face it: in this day and age, everyone writes. Our culture absolutely depends on people having solid literacy skills, both receptive and expressive. Your ability to succeed often hinges on your ability to express yourself. Few and far between are those who are hailed as genius in their respective fields who are not comfortable with personal expression in all its forms, but especially language as codified into written form. Writing is everywhere.

The strange thing to my mind is that, despite the frequency with which we are required to express ourselves in writing, the vast majority of people don’t have a solid idea of where their writing skills lie in the brilliant/awful spectrum. For some, they lack the skills to objectively assess their output against the norm, often ranking themselves lower than they should. For others, they lack the common sense to understand that when mom thinks they are the next Shakespeare (or Christopher Marlowe, depending on where you stand on the ‘did Shakespeare write his own plays or not’ debate) but no one else seems to have noticed this remarkable gift, well… odds are the gift they’ve got is probably in some other domain. So how good is your writing?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the mentorship of some truly outstandingly talented editors at a time when I was open to learning and receptive to their (constructive) criticism. They showed me not what I had written, but what the reader sees in my words. They showed me how to see the big picture in each paragraph, in each sentence, and in each word. They showed me when to surprise and excite people, and when not to. In short, they showed me, piece by piece, where my writing was strong and where it lacked power. And they showed me over and over again until I understood it in my gut.

We aren’t always lucky enough to have an editor going over our work. Nor do we have a bottomless treasure chest with which to take writing classes or hire a ghost writer, nor endless hours to spend drafting and redrafting everything we write. So how can we make sure our writing is as strong as we can make it?

  1. Figure out what you want the reader to remember before you start writing. If you know nothing else about what you are about to write, you must know at least that much.
  2. Figure out what the reader already knows… and what they need to know. Give them all the information they need, when they need it, to help them understand what you are trying to say.
  3. Stick to the important stuff. I am the queen of rambling on (and on) and going off on tangents which. All that does is derail the power of the message.
  4. Don’t overcomplicate things. Long, convoluted sentences are intimidating and (usually) unnecessary. Ordinary language is used everyday because it is easy to understand and effective at getting points across. Big concepts don’t always need big words.
  5. Once you are done writing it, read it out loud. If your mouth can’t say it, your reader won’t want to read it. In reading it aloud, we get a sense of where sentences are too wordy or where the paragraphs stop flowing smoothly.
  6. When in doubt, sit on it a while. Your subconscious mind is a powerful tool. Give it time to work before you loose your words on your readers. After a few days, or hours, or even just twenty minutes, read your words out loud again and chances are you’ll have a much better idea of how to get your point across more effectively.
  7. Before you send it out into the world, spellcheck it. Seriously. Just do it. No one is that good a typist that they don’t get it wrong now and again.

And when you’re done reading my words, go read “8 Qualities of Powerful Writing” by Dustin Wax.