Be Careful with Questions

HW - Question Mark Art

The advertisement for the hospital began with the prominent headline: Is It Possible to Transform the Way Emergency Care is Delivered?

The first two sentences of the narrative copy asked: What if emergency care were designed around you? What if all the different steps typically encountered in the emergency department could be streamlined?

Then the narrative shifts to its answers: That’s just what we’ve done… at our newly expanded facility… we’ve transformed the entire process… when you arrive you’ll be greeted by a nurse then typically brought directly to the patient care area… met by your own care team… with our state-of-the-art diagnostic testing… we offer some of the most advanced… world-class emergency care designed around you…

The general rule in writing for the reader is to use questions sparingly. The first problem is the reader never comes to a narrative expecting to be asked to do the work of answering questions. The reader asks the questions of the narrative. The second is that questions set up expectations that the reader will find compelling answers somewhere in the narrative. If the narrative answers fall short, the message fails.

The late Donald Murray was a journalist, writing coach and author. In his book, “Read to Write,” he writes: “Each piece of effective writing may be described as a conversation between the reader and writer, in which the writer anticipates the reader’s questions and answers them just before they are asked.”

In the online world of quick click and move, this advice becomes more important. We usually have just a few seconds of the reader’s time to get them engaged.

In the advertising example above, once the questions create the expectation, the narrative itself is weak on answers. We speak of the newly expanded facility, which is not specific and not particularly transformational. We are greeted by a nurse and met by your own care team. That is what usually happens at a hospital emergency department. Our treatment is state-of-the-art and most advanced and world-class. None of these terms are specific in answering the questions the ad posed.

The question is a legitimate literary device that has a place in writing. But, use or overuse of the question runs the risk of alienating the reader. And, if we choose to use the question, a powerful and specific narrative answer should follow.