Tuesday, November 27, 2018

"just follow the damn directions"

"Just follow the damn directions" is a lament heard far and wide in the QueryLand town of Agentville.

Also, heard here in The Reef more than a time or ten, truth be told. Usually when someone "helpfully" sends a PDF rather than a word .doc "so the formatting doesn't get bollixed up." Or when someone sends an attachment because emails "screw up the formatting."

Good intentions, but not what I want.

This post is not about that.

This post is about how hard it is to write the directions we're all so intent on you following.

We saw a really good example of this last week.

Our very own Colin Smith read the flash fiction contest rules (as did all the people who entered) and he thought the directions meant use one of the prompt words in subsequent entries. What I intended you to do was use an entire entry.

So, Colin is a smart guy.  He's been entering these contests for a while now. I think he's clocked in at over 100. He's had some experience reading directions. Plus, he's not a dimwit, and he's not a simpleton. (In fact, he's the exact opposite)

And let's assume, if only for the sake of this discussion, that I'm not either.

Let's further assume that I didn't purposefully write those directions to befuddle you.

So, who's right?

Well, both of us.

I know what I intended, and Colin knows what he heard.

That there was a disconnect, not intentional, just happened.

Which brings me to my point: writing directions is a whole lot harder than it looks. What I think I'm saying can often morph into a horse of a different color in the eye of the person beholding the beast.

Which is why agents need to relax a little on "follow the damn directions" and consider whether the directions are clear to someone who is new or newish to publishing. (Or, even savvy like Colin.)

And why authors should not overthink things, or interpret so rigidly that they miss the intent behind the instructions. "Send three pages" doesn't mean cut off the sample pages mid sentence, or even mid paragraph. It means don't send the entire novel or 50 pages. Finish the sentence. Finish the paragraph. Finish the chapter if you can.

One of the things I value most about the blog reading community here is that I get to see first hand when my writing is NOT clear.

So, Colin actually performed a good deed by helping me see what I needed to improve. He's still bear breakfast though. I like the guy, but I'm not going to be nice to him. You want that other blog for nice.

What  are some examples of directions that have befuddled you?


E.M. Goldsmith said...

Most agents are clear on their initial query requirements.

However, as I have been researching agents gearing up for my query run, there are a few things that puzzle me a bit.

1. I am often unclear as to whether they want pages in the body of the text of the email or as an attachment. Most specify clearly. Some just say send query, synopsis, and first X pages. They don't say how to send those pages. I am inclined to include those pages in the body of the email unless otherwise indicated. Is that right?

2. They specify what they want in the query and it conflicts with what I have learned here and on query shark. For example, they want genre, word count, and housekeeping in the first paragraph instead of starting with the pitch as it were. Should I change the query to suit the agent/agency preference?

3. They want to know in the bio paragraph what "qualifies" you to write what you've written and you write fiction. What are they looking for in the bio paragraph exactly? Your experience with genetically engineering dragons? I am trying. The time you were trying to write a paper on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and were banished from the library at Christ Church, Oxford for your trouble? I am never certain what to put in that paragraph.

It's a shame about Colin. Poor boy. Getting eaten by bears is harsh although infinitely better than to be banished to the stinking kale fields of Carkoon. Plus, it is a kindness for the bears. It's going to be a cold winter and they need to fatten up before they hibernate.

Kitty said...

"What are some examples of directions that have befuddled you?"

Anything techie, like hooking up computer things. I even cringe calling a tech to be walked through a simple process. When I do call, and I'm able to do whatever I'm trying to do, I am so grateful to the tech for his/her help that I want to name them in my will. Most of the time we call our beloved Geek, who has the patience of a saint, to make a housecall.

Mister Furkles said...

A friend used to be a tech writer in Silicon Valley. Among other things, she wrote instruction manuals. It's not as easy as people assume. Instructions need to be tested. Nearly all those tech writers were laid off when executives discovered the work could be done in Word rather than Adobe Frame Maker. They thought they had writers because Frame Maker was difficult to master. Instruction manuals have suffered since then.

When an early ATM manufacturer developed their first ATM, the instructions said, "Type your password and Enter." The test volunteers typed their password and asked "Where do I go in?"

Writing unambiguous and easy-to-follow instructions is a craft like any other from of writing.

Kitty said...

Mister Furkles, I agree. I guess I didn't make it clear that not only am I NOT tech-savvy, I have a difficult time following written directions pertaining to anything. My children can tell you hilarious stories of me trying to follow the directions on a jell-o package. No joke.

CynthiaMc said...

Our family reunion in the wilderness.

Cousin James sent Hubby the address. Cousin Val sent me the address. The addresses were slightly different (which we didn't realize at first). GPS said "you have arrived" at each address. Wrong. (One was a field, one was a house that definitely did not belong to family).

No wifi. No cell service for any of us. We are still getting voice mails back and forth from trying to call each other (from Saturday).

In years past the host would send a flyer via snail mail with address, landline phone, and a map. The past few reunions have been in the city. We had no idea there were places GPS doesn't go. Our host has a landline, but nobody had that number.

The only reason we found it was Val said "follow the signs for the park" which is on the lake which led to the paved road which led to the dirt road (canyon) where we saw someone we recognized frying up the fish (their tradition - dinner on Thursday, fishing on Friday, fish fry on Saturday).

The Good Lord must have been looking out for us because we got a free upgrade to an SUV (instead of the sedan we rented). A regular car would have been destroyed.

Sometimes old-fashioned works.

nightsmusic said...

Kristen Lamb, a favorite author, posted a meme yesterday. She said someday she wanted to have a job like the person who wrote this clothing tag:

Flip Inside Out And Hand Wash Cold Water So You Don't Ruin It Like Everything Else In Your Life

I thought it was a hysterical tag but more to the point, I have to wonder how many people actually read and follow it.

My husband is of the opinion that instructions are just guidelines. The first thing he does with them is either toss them, ignore them or refuse to admit he even saw them until he gets in over his head with whatever he's doing. I don't think it would matter how clear they are, some people don't like to follow them. :/

Craig F said...

For forever and a day I have been the kind of guy who feels directions are a last resort. Put it together three times and if all fail spectacularly, read the instructions.

That made it especially perverse when I had to train people and write training manuals. I found that no two people read them the same way. The worst are those who were trained in another way, even if they knew it was wrong.

The reason, they could not unlearn those previous instructions. I learned that you have to reinforce what you tell them three times.

If it is against attachments, state it at the beginning, somewhere in the middle, and at the end. Sometimes it still doesn't get past the world view of the reader. It is sometimes too bad you can't put a kicking mule in the instruction envelope, just to get the attention of the reader.

Maybe the bear's scat will look like something and Colin will gain some fame from it.

MK said...

I didn't know agents weren't strict on EXACTLY ten pages until I read it on this blog, so thank you for that.

Also this is less directions than recommendations but I've heard not to focus on the author bio/TO write a good bio, not to personalize the query because it's the strength of the work that counts/TO personalize the query to grab their attention ... I've done a little of both and I figure if doing one or the other hurts my chances, it wasn't meant to be. What are you gonna do?

John Davis Frain said...

SPEED LIMIT 80 is a direction I seem to struggle with. Especially after some uniformed guy points out it's a 60. But, ya know, who's more understanding than a cop after following you for 4 1/2 miles because you weren't paying attention to that either.

On the other hand, I might've worked out a crucial scene, so this ticket practically pays for itself.

Kate Larkindale said...

I'm generally okay with written directions, but any kind of diagram for putting something together just baffles me. I just don't have a spatial brain, I guess. Even the archive boxes at work stump me, and I've made those up many times. And don't even ask me about trying to help the kids with their Lego...

Theresa B (of Nebulopathy) said...

Back in my vet med days I worked with someone who always used "orally" instead of "by mouth" on prescription labels (eg, "give 0.3 ml orally twice daily") because -- and she swore this was true -- she had a client who took "by mouth" to mean "on the skin near the mouth" and then complained that the meds didn't work.

Colin Smith said...

The sad thing is, I was actually quite pleased with--even proud of--my entries. I mean, 3-word stories? That's hard. And a couple of them were actually not bad. Shame they would have been disqualified. I still fault myself for a) not reading the directions more carefully, b) not asking if in doubt, c) not taking a clue from what everyone else was doing, d) leaving it so late to enter that my brain energy was already fairly low.

Being an object lesson for everyone else more than makes up, though. :D

The first job I had in this country was as a technical writer. I was tasked with writing the user manual for software a friend had written for a local company. It was a great introduction to writing directions without assuming the reader has any technical knowledge or experience. Always put yourself in your readers shoes, and don't be afraid to ask the stupid questions they might ask.

Not bad advice for novel writing either. :)

Casey Karp said...

Late to the party today. Darn me. Darn the dentist.


My favorite misleading directions are the ones on so many microwaveable foods which go into excruciating detail about taking it out of the box, how to peel or not peel the plastic, and on and on for four or five steps.

Then the last step explains how to discard the packaging.

Shouldn't there be a step in there somewhere telling you to *eat* the darn food?

Amy Johnson said...

Science Olympiad has an event that involves pairs of teammates building a structure. Each pair has a "writer" who writes the instructions for how to build the structure (which is built by the event supervisor in advance with Tinkertoy pieces, K'Nex, etc.) and a "builder" who later uses his/her partner's instructions and available building materials to try to build something as close to the original as possible. (No diagrams permitted.)

One year, my son and his teammate were practicing for the event. When my son was the builder, parts of the instructions that were unclear to him were also unclear to me. But the teammate's mom knew exactly what her son had meant. Same kind of thing happened when the kids switched writer/builder roles.

The years I coached the team, I was glad when siblings wanted to be partners--at the start of preparations, they already "spoke the same language." Fascinating stuff!

Karen McCoy said...

So. Much. Relief. Thank you for posting this.

Because I am neurodivergent, I don't process instructions (especially auditory ones) in the same ways that others do. For this reason, I always let people know that I need very specific directions, because I can sometimes misinterpret something that seems very simple to someone else.

This can sometimes be helpful in drafting fiction--seeing new angles. But in other circumstances, it can cause a bit of chaos in communication. Double-meanings on words? Don't get me started. (Theresa B, I would have likely made a similar mistake to your patient. Case in point: In first grade, it took me three tries to find my assigned desk because I couldn't understand where the teacher was telling me to sit.)

The publishing business does not have specific instructions, and I recognize this. My fear is that my divergent thinking might spell "incompetent" rather than "misunderstood." Which is why I am glad this is being addressed from the agent side. For example, people who haven't received an edit letter probably aren't familiar with terms like STET. Or, a word that has a different meaning might have a niche connotation in the publishing world.

I'd be interested to hear from others (dyslexics? ADDers?) who might have experienced some of this.

Colin Smith said...

BTW, I have updated the Contest Spreadsheet in the Treasure Chest. I didn't list a winner because Janet didn't declare one. But I think we can agree Claire Bobrow won the people's vote, yes? :)

Craig F said...

See what happens when you don't read all the way to the bottom of the instructions.

An examples of bad instructions: IKEA

Namely the first futon I put together. Four pieces of this, that, that and those things. Instructions that said to put tab A in slot A, in Swedish.

None of the pieces were marked, so it took three tries to get all of the holes they didn't tell you about lined up.

Yes, Colin: Claire gets my vote.

Panda in Chief said...

Contest winner: Definitely Claire!

Reading directions. I am terrible at this. If I'm putting something together, an exploded diagram is 1000X better than written directions, and 1MX better than auditory directions.

Speaking of directions and under the category of "this really wasn't our fault," A friend and I were going to another friend's wedding. We first used MAPQUEST, (Pre Google maps)which took us totally to the wrong place, so we were already late to begin with.

We then looked at her directions in the invitation, which, after we found the right road (This was a casual home outdoor wedding in a rural-ish area, the directions said, "Look for the balloons on the mailbox.")

We saw some balloons, turned in to the driveway, and there were way more cars than we were expecting. We parked and got out of the car, and noticed people were REALLY casually dressed, like shorts and flip flops. "Well, they did say casual"

There were lots of people sitting around eating, and a bunch of canopies with tables with food, notably a HUGE container of cooked crab. We didn't see anyone we recognized, but figured it must be her family and the grooms family, neither of which we knew.

So, wondering about this especially casual wedding where there was major eating going on before the ceremony, we put our gift on a table in the house ("That's funny...there are't any other gifts") and went and got some crab to eat, (Because DUNGENESS CRAB, PEOPLE!)

After about 45 minutes (because crab!) we finally started getting edgy, and people were looking at us a little funny, so we got up our nerve and went into the house, and my friend asked, "Is the wedding going to start soon?" Then they looked at us REALLY funny, and said, "This isn't a wedding. This is our annual crab feed."

So we grabbed our present, thanked them for the crab, and hightailed it out of there, where the NEXT driveway about 1/4 mile down the road ALSO had balloons, which was where the actual wedding was.

We missed the wedding, but we did have some awfully good crab, not to mention a really good story which we both still tell about 20 years later.

Sorry for the long post.
I'm making up for being a lurker mostly these days.

Karen McCoy said...

My vote is for Claire as well!

KDJames said...

Panda, that's hilarious. We had a similar story attending an out-of-town wedding, left the directions at home, remembered it was a Lutheran church. How many Lutheran churches could there possibly be in one very small town in MN? Three. There were three. At least, that's how many ceremonies we oh-so-quietly sat down in before finding the right one.

My favourite "directions" story is told at the expense of my son when he was in college, living in an apartment and responsible for feeding himself for the first time ever. He called me, all frantic, said he was making Kraft mac & cheese and wanted to know whether to add the envelope of powered cheese to the noodles before or after the water boiled.
Confused, I said, "What? Neither."
"Mom, I'm serious. Do I add it before or after the water boils?"
Now I'm laughing and can barely speak. "Did you read the directions?" (There are like three steps, it's not difficult: boil and drain the noodles; add the other ingredients; stir.)
"Mom, this isn't funny. The water is almost boiling and I NEED TO KNOW NOW."

Poor guy. Still hasn't lived it down, even though he has turned into an excellent cook. To his credit, he was a pure genius with assembling Legos as a kid. I'd be "helping" him, reading the instructions aloud, assuming he was following along. No, he was 30 steps ahead and flipping the instruction sheet over to see where that one odd piece went. Before I'd caught up, he'd finished and was taking it apart to make some other cool thing.

Directions are a bit like "rules." Good if you want to achieve a certain set outcome; not so great if you'd rather embark on a path of discovery. You just have to be prepared to accept the consequences.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Hoo boy.

I follow your blog precisely because it explains how things are from the agent side and the reasons for those directions. And that has been super helpful because many agency web sites just say "send query and pages to [e-mail address]" with NOTHING about format.

There's another very helpful agent blog I follow. That agent does NOT want not a query and pages pasted into the e-mail. Instead, the e-mail* should contain a "cover letter." Then, the book proposal, including synopsis, comps, author bio, marketing ideas (!), and pages, should be included in a Word or PDF attachment.

*(At least, I *think* the cover letter is supposed to go in the body of the e-mail, and not in its own attachment. That's actually something I haven't been able to figure out from reading their web site.)

The weird thing is that Other Blog also gets annoyed about authors not following directions, and maintains that what they want is the "industry standard."

Their tips on not making mistakes include things like "don't spell the agent's name wrong." Oh, thanks.

I don't mind so much when agents or agencies have different things they want to see. But it does annoy me when they seem to think that if an author messes up, it's because the person hasn't done any research.

luciakaku said...

I run into that problem all the time, mostly at work because giving directions is one of the job descriptions of a teacher.

Sometimes, when the task is simple, I can even use short English phrases and gestures to get the meaning across. But even when 25 students get it immediately, there could be five who don't understand. In really good classes, the other kids around them help them understand without me having to do anything.

Additionally, practice makes efficient. If I've explained the same game a thousand times, I know what works, what's clear, and don't have to think to find the right approach. If it's the first time I'm doing a game, I'm likely to be just as confused as my kids while I fumble for the right directions.

And then there's days my Japanese has decided to vacation in Carkoon and leave me in a room full of Japanese people who have no idea why I'm asking them to move their pencils and take out their desks.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

P.S. Just went back & read all the other comments, and now have two more thoughts on directions.

A person very close to me, who shall remain anonymous, takes directions VERY SERIOUSLY and parses them VERY CAREFULLY. This makes life ... VERY DIFFICULT most of the time when there is a document that affects our lives in any way. Although, of course, there are occasions when it IS critical to treat a direction or a document in exactly that way.

One problem is that if you parse directions carefully enough, they often end up getting more ambiguous or self-contradictory the closer you look.
Another problem is that people don't realize that once you write something down in a directions context, it acquires a certain authority that can strike fear into the hearts of the timid, causing them to over-think it.

This reminded me of a bad experience in about 4th grade where we were given one of those "tests" to see if you can follow directions, where the first item on the list is "read the entire test before beginning" and the last item is "obey only instructions one and two." I read through an entire DIFFERENT test (we were supposed to take it that day ... I was overinterpreting) and ended up getting smugly blamed, along with most of the rest of the class, for "not following directions." The injustice still smolders, because I am a good doobie at heart, even if not a very bright one.

AJ Blythe said...

I think I've told this story before, but it still makes me laugh. The Hub was trying to walk his Mum through some computer issues over the phone. He told her to right click. She said nothing happened. For the next few minutes he kept asking if she was right clicking and she insisted she was. After another few minutes my very frustrated Hub asked her if she was certain she was clicking the right mouse key...no, she'd been writing "click" on a piece of paper.

Joseph S said...

Sam and Son, the Geezinslaws, are a comedy/singing act (Excellent too). Sam tell jokes about Son (who never smiles and never talks). Here Sam explains why Son was almost late for the show:

“Son bought a new bottle of shampoo. When he got in the shower he read the instructions:
Shampoo, Rinse, Repeat. Shampoo, Rinse, Repeat.
If he had bought a bigger bottle, he wouldn’t be here yet!”

Jonathan Levy said...

What are some examples of directions that have befuddled you?

My favorite ice cream flavor is Cookies & Cream, of course, and I'm very happy to share this detail with you since you asked so nicely.

Can't understand why everyone else replied with weird stories about getting confused.