I’m deep into preparing submissions for conference talks. This isn’t the first time, but it’s been a while and these talks have a different focus from the ones I’ve done before. I have a fair amount of prospective content together. But getting it into a cohesive abstract that is engaging, addresses the right audience, and, most of all, is short, has been a struggle. I’m grateful for assistance from folks who are much better writers than I am.

You may vaguely remember from a long-ago high school class the four types of writing: expository, descriptive, persuasive, and narrative.

Expository writing? I’m all over that. I’ve got a thing that I know about, and then I write about what that thing is, or what it does, or how to do it. There’s pages and pages (and pages and pages) of me doing this all over the internet. It’s classic technical writing: explaining something.

Those other kinds? I know about them, and sometimes use elements of them. Most people do. Where it varies is in how effective one is about it.

I want to be persuasive when I try to convince my spouse that we really should go back to Japan. Because it was so much fun, and there are so many neat things we didn’t see. And we’re gonna lose our elite airline status if we don’t get on the stick about it. (That’s pretty persuasive in my household.) I can pull out a bunch of supporting evidence, but mostly it’s that evidence that’s doing the persuading.

Descriptive writing is sometimes close to expository writing. You can explain how something looks or feels in a realistic, physical sense. But that’s a very narrow view of it. It includes the grand, sweeping words that paint pictures in your mind as they set the scene. “Rosy-fingered dawn” is a particularly elegant descriptive statement about a metaphorical sunrise. But someone else wrote that, as I’m unlikely to be mistaken for the progenitor of epic poetry.

I’m not sure how much I can describe my writing as narrative. Yes, I can do the “Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How” and that could be thought of as telling a story. But stories presume one has characters playing their parts in a recognizable plot, and that’s usually where I miss it. Narrative is expected to have a coherent structure, even if it isn’t necessarily linear. (For me, longer writing often starts to look like “paragraph salad,” as if someone dumped my index card notes on the floor.)

So back to editing.

My previous talks have been about explaining things. You want to know about log files? I can explain log files for hours. I might occasionally have an opinion to share, but mostly what I’m going to say is “See, this thing here? Here’s where it comes from and what it means.” My talk submissions were two paragraphs of “This is what I am going to explain to you.” There’s some element of “And this is why you should care,” but only enough to not sound like a documentation-generating robot.

The current conference, however, likes stories, opinions, and feelings to go with the facts. Those are basically anti-expository, so I’m having a tough time of it. I managed to write something, but it was closer to an outline for the entire talk than an advertisement saying “Please accept my talk for your conference.” And it was way, way too long.

I tried. I fiddled with this, and reworded that, and managed to cut about 30 percent. Still too long. I was holding on to the idea that I had to describe what I was going to explain, rather than persuade that I had something practical, interesting or enlightening to listen to. It’s not even that I was so attached to my words that I didn’t want to let any of them go. It’s that I am optimizing for the wrong thing. And the right thing is something I’m still working on even recognizing.

I sat down with a few writer friends, people who do this all day, every day and not just while waiting for a compile to finish. They took my paragraphs, put them in a blender, and out came something that even I could see was better. It wasn’t my voice, and I didn’t just wholesale use their results, but it gave me a way to see what my words could have been. I could then take my original text and move it closer to where it needed to be, even if I couldn’t explain why I was not able to get there on my own.

As people who have “Engineer” in their titles go, I’m a fairly decent writer. I’m proud of that. But that doesn’t mean I’m a great writer. I had gotten to a place where I couldn’t see the way out, and needed a professional intervention. I hope next time this will be easier.

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