What Writers Can Learn from a Cake Mix
In the 1950s, General Mills launched cake mix under the Betty Crocker brand. Everything was in powdered form. It was aimed at the busy housewife – all she had to do was add water and bake. But surprisingly, the cake mix didn’t sell. A team of psychologists was brought in to work out why the product just wasn’t appealing to customers. They determined that it was precisely the convenience that robbed consumers of the feeling that they were making a cake. It was too easy.
They decided to make the cake mix less convenient and revised the recipe so that to make the cake you now had to add an egg.
This is a great lesson for writers.
When we craft our stories, we do not and should not spoonfeed a reader. We want to offer the reader most of the ingredients of our story, but we can and should leave gaps, where the reader has to ‘add an egg.’
The wonderful Israeli writer Nava Semel talks about leaving space in the text so that the reader’s soul map can interact with the text. She says this comes from learning how to delete and edit, so that our narrative is not stifling and dense, but suggestive, inviting the reader to interpret.
One way we can do this as writers is when we show, rather than tell. Instead of telling a reader ‘he was angry,’ we might write, ‘he clenched his fists, and the muscles in his jaw tightened.’ This way, a reader can decide what emotion is being expressed here without being directed to any particular emotion. This is how we open our writing to interpretation and by implication, to different interpretations.
Writing is always a dance between making ourselves understood, offering bridges to readers so they can follow us, but not mapping out their journey so entirely that we rob them of the satisfaction of ‘adding an egg.’
Leaving something out can be an act of generosity, an acknowledgement of the intelligence and sensitivity someone else might bring to the act of reading.
Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?