Would your writing pass the ‘Bus Depot Test’?

A bus depot is an unlikely testing ground for your writing, but it’s actually a good metaphor for thinking about how to approach your prose.

A bus depot is an unlikely testing ground for your writing, but it’s actually a good metaphor for thinking about how to approach your prose.

The other night, I was re-reading a piece by the extraordinary journalist, essayist, and novelist Pete Hamill. I’m a long admirer of his work, both as someone who writes for a living and who reads for love. To me, his writing is so smooth, so effortless, that you forget you’re reading—you just get engrossed in his ideas and what he has to say.

That’s an astonishing talent, and to me, the hard part of writing. Grammar and spelling can be learned or improved; but engaging someone takes virtuosity.

Fifteen years ago, I devised a silly little self-test for my writing. The aim was to make my words as reader friendly and engaging as I could.

This test can apply to any type of writing you do—whether it’s a novel, blog, proposal, email, or whatever. It will help you gauge if you’ve created the proper context—because let’s face it, we’ve all read cryptic articles, posts, and brochures that left our craniums throbbing. Maybe this is an antidote for that.

To start, imagine you’re in a bus depot. (Stay with me.) It’s raining and miserable out, and your bus is two hours late. The place is packed, noisy, hot, and the food and magazine stands are long closed. Your iPhone desperately needs a charge, and you can’t find an outlet anywhere. The hard plastic seat you’re melting in is also badgering your sciatica. You just want to get home.

Then, you notice something on the floor under your seat.

It’s some kind of written piece, apparently left there. You glance at it and figure, OK, I’ll give it a read. Every few seconds, though, you glance up at the arrivals monitor, hoping that your bus has finally pulled in. Your stomach is growling, loud enough to embarrass you. (Hey, don’t I have a Snickers® bar in my bag? Yes!) You check your fading iPhone for messages, then go back to reading a little more.

Let’s pause here, because this story can change—depending on the written piece you just found. Maybe it’s fascinating; you devour every word, and end up missing your bus. Or perhaps it’s so confusing and strange, you delight in taking it to the nearest bathroom and flushing a page at a time down a filthy toilet.

This dreary little fable reveals an important reality about the relationship between anything you write and people who read it. Most folks these days, like our bus depot hero, are:

  • Overwhelmed and time crunched
  • Absorbed in what’s happening in their world, at this moment
  • Distracted by countless little pleasures and annoyances

And here you are, begging for another sliver of their time, trying to communicate something. Have some mercy.

When you empathize with your reader, you see your writing in a way you haven’t before. Of course, you have points to make and ideas to communicate—that’s what writing does. But, you also ask yourself questions like:

  • If someone saw this cold, would he or she get it?
  • Am I being crystal clear? Does this make sense?
  • Have I gotten to the point I need to?
  • Is this interesting?
  • Does this read smoothly? Have I made this easy?

This exercise, by the way, is flexible. It doesn’t have to be a bus depot. You can create any distracting, overwhelming scene you like. (An airplane with a screaming kid; a trench at the brink of war; you get the idea.)

The point is to always remember your reader.

The next time you write something, try imagining leaving it in that drab little bus depot on a rainy night—where some poor, distracted and irritated soul will read it, completely out of context. If it passes that test, it’s ready to share with the world.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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