Writing Workshop, Part 1: Set the Scene

Time for part 1! If you’re not familiar with this workshop, read the overview first. In this part, we’re going to discuss the first thing I do anytime I start writing: set the scene.

Now, that’s not the same as “setting the scene” in a story, per se, but it’s close. For example, consider this article on impeachment in the USA. Right at the outset, I did two important things:

  • I stated who the article is for. That’s important, because it sets up some instant assumptions. Someone not from the US, for example, might not even be aware that we have two houses within our Federal legislature, and so my writing needs to take that into account.
  • I implicitly stated my goal. I want to explain what impeachment is, in a non-partisan fashion.

Any good bit of writing needs to put your reader in the center seat. The writing needs to be for and about them, not me. A lot of writers will tackle this bluntly and head-on, which is fine:

I’m going to teach you how to reinstall macOS on a computer where the operating system needs to be reset to the factory condition. I assume you know very little about installing macOS, but that you have a copy of the installation software on a USB drive that will attach to your computer.

That’s a pretty straightforward statement, but it can also be a bit “cold” for me. I might start with something like that in my planning process, but my actual prose might be a bit different:

Ever have a Mac that you need to sell or give to someone else? You’ll want to reset everything back to factory defaults, and make sure your own personal information is removed, right? But what if you’ve never done that before? So long as you have a copy of a macOS installer on a USB drive, the process is pretty straightforward. Let’s get started!

I’ve said the same thing, there, I’ve just done it in a bit more of a narrative style. In just one short paragraph, I’ve laid out the WIIFM: What’s In It For Me. I’ve let the reader know what’s expected of them, and what they’re going to get out of it. This isn’t about me – it’s about them.

And another thing: most of the time that I’m writing, I’m not writing about something that’s new to me. That is, I’m not experimenting, figuring stuff out, and writing about it. I’m usually writing about something I know well. There’s a very good reason for that.

Teaching someone something through writing is a linear, sequential process. As the writer, I pick where I start, where I go next, and where I finish. “Where I start” is determined by who my reader is at the outset, and “where I end” is determined by who I want them to be at the conclusion. Everything in between needs to present the shortest, smoothest path between those two points.

Learning and experimentation, however, are often non-sequential. I might try something, research a bit, try some more, and then realize I’ve screwed up and need to start over. I don’t want that to be the “narrative” a reader follows, because it would be confusing. So I need to write about things I already know and have done. That way, I’ve already charted out the smoothest path, and I’ve identified and eliminated the tangents I may have burned time on when I was learning.

Another point: don’t feel you can only write things that would impress other people. Most people who’ve worked with PowerShell for a while, for example, would tell you that Don Jones is a master of the shell. They’d be wrong. Very, very wrong, in fact. They see me that way because in most cases they learned the fundamentals of the shell from me, or my books, or my classes, or something. What they don’t know is that, past that entry-level and intermediate stuff, I’m nigh-useless. I’m really good at explaining what I do know, and there’s a lot of value in that, but there are plenty of people in the PowerShell world who far exceed my knowledge and skill, especially in more esoteric, advanced topics. So it’s fine to write about “basic stuff.” Someone out there will need it, and benefit from it.


This assignment is twofold. Remember, you’re welcome to post your work in a blog post, or in a Markdown doc in a GitHub public repo. If you post that URL as a comment to this article prior to the end of 2019, I’ll do my best to review it and offer feedback. Sorry, but I can’t commit to offering feedback after the end of 2019.

Part 1: Decide what you’re going to write about. Try to pick a topic you can do in about 1,000 words, which is roughly two pages in Word. That means you need to think small. And it doesn’t have to be technical: you might explain something about your government, for example, as I sometimes do.

Part 2: Decide who your reader is and who you want them to be. Writing of this nature is about making change, and in order to do that, you need to define your start and end points, so that your writing can cover the in-between. This might be as easy as, “someone who doesn’t know what a Home Owners’ Association is” and “someone who can explain what an HOA typically can and cannot do.”

Get to it! You’ve got a week!

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