By Grace Aldridge Foster
During a recent trip to Ireland, I got to spend a couple days in Dublin. Between visits to Trinity College and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I squeezed in a tour of the historic Jameson Whiskey Distillery.
Though the famous whiskey is now produced at Midleton Distillery in County Cork, the original Jameson distillery on Bow Street is still a must-visit site. You enter the distillery by way of a huge tasting room, decorated from top to bottom with Jameson’s iconic green bottles. When you look up to admire the impressive whiskey-bottle chandelier, you see an inscription quoting novelist Raymond Chandler that reads, “A good story cannot be devised, it has to be distilled.”
That caught my attention, so I snapped a quick picture and thought about it on my long bus ride to the airport later that day.
“Devise” means to plan or invent something.
“Distill” means to extract the essential meaning or aspects of something.
The difference between the two is the difference between approaching story-telling—and writing more broadly—as the ends instead of the means. The difference between writing for yourself and writing for your audience.
Too often we hear from our clients, “We haven’t posted on our company blog in a few days; I’ve got to get something up by COB.” Or, “It’s been 24 hours; I need to get an email out to that person.”
Writing tasks become items on a checklist, and producing an email or a blog post for the sake of getting it out is the priority. The consequence of that mindset is forgetting what you want to accomplish with that email or blog post.
When we shift our mindset to thinking of each writing task as a means of accomplishing a particular goal, we write better documents that prioritize specific outcomes and focus on the audience.
Now, the task becomes, “I need to get a blog post out soon so our readers can start using this advice right away.”
This does require a little extra thought up front. It requires you to think about what you want your writing to accomplish, and how you need to write that document in order to secure that outcome. You have to think about what your reader needs to know to take the action you need them to take
As you write emails, proposals, blogs, and tweets this week, I challenge you to distill each message: extract the essential meaning for you reader, and put it up front so they can’t miss it.