Write for a single reader

People sometimes say you should write the way you talk. I see what they’re getting at – be more direct and flowing, less stuffy and formal – but you shouldn’t take that advice too literally.

Writing and speech work very differently. If you’ve ever transcribed a conversation, you’ll know that a lot of the time people don’t even talk in sentences. And anyway, some of us are more fluent in writing than in speech.

Maybe a better version of that tip would be to write in a way that would sound natural if you read it out loud, or to write the way you would talk if you were an Aaron Sorkin character.

But a different way of making the same point struck me recently.

I was doing a piece of editing, and one passage in the text didn’t make sense. It was ambiguously phrased, and I didn’t know enough about the subject to figure out the intended meaning. So I emailed the writer and asked him to help.

His reply consisted of two paragraphs.

The first began “I was trying to make the point that…” and then gave me a perfectly lucid, direct explanation of it. The second began “So I would suggest rewriting it as follows…” and then presented a rewrite that, while clearer than the original, was a good bit stiffer and more overwrought than the explanation he’d just given me.

What had happened was very simple. First he had answered my question, telling me – one person to another – what he wanted me to understand. And then he had gone into Writing Mode.

In Writing Mode, you put aside your ordinary, natural fluency for fear that it isn’t up to the occasion, and you reach for ornate words and sentence structures to self-consciously craft a declaration. But these efforts often just get in the way of communicating.

So my advice is to write for an audience of one single person. Don’t let yourself be daunted by the sense that you’re addressing a crowd.

Sure, you may be aiming for a large readership, but each of them will read as an individual. So write for an individual. Imagine one of them in particular – someone who may well not have the same knowledge and priorities as you – and write directly for that one person.

Try it. Yes, I mean you.

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  • ksrikrishna  On August 5, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    Tom excellent insight. My old boss used to ask “How would you explain it [my job] to your mom?” This always forced me to simplify and de-jargon my explanations (hard – once an engineer always a gear-head!)

  • Vishnu  On August 12, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    It is very interesting when it comes to technical writing. Certain reviewers have the habit of entering comments, which on analysis means that one has to write for a fool and an expert users at the same time. It is worse, and at times, extremely ridiculous for writers.

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