Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Reader: Always on My Mind

When I answer my phone and I suspect it's one of my clients on the other end of the line, I answer with a cheerful, "Hello, this is Betsy." ("Go for Betsy!" seems a little casual.) This makes it easier for my clients to skip the step of "May I speak to..." and it's always helpful for someone to know exactly who is on the other end of the line. Even my voice mail greeting is a quick, simple, "This is Betsy. Sorry I missed you." [beep]. No one needs to be reminded to leave a message anymore. And no one needs to be promised that you will call him back. Callers just want to know, for whom am I leaving this message?

In our writing, this question should be one of our first considerations. When we publish, we are leaving a message for people, and we need to know who they are. That's why one of the first things I say to a new client in an initial get-to-know-you discussion is, "Tell me about the person who is going to read this."

Why is it important to keep a reader in mind as you move along in your writing process?

Simply put, because everything has to be translated.

Maybe you think there's no translation going on with your writing unless it's being changed into another language. As long as you are writing in English for English-speaking readers, you might not imagine that translation is happening. Keep in mind, though, that even language itself is a translation. Our brains run on glucose, not phonics.

When you write, your ideas (thought pictures) are being translated into words (sound pictures), which will then be translated again by the reader into her own ideas. In addition, she is building on these pictures herself as she reads, translating and altering, interpreting and recomposing, as she fixes her eyes on your words and new thoughts emerge in her mind. Every new thought picture is a mixture of 1) what you were trying to translate into words, and 2) what she brought with her in her mind before she ever picked up your document. Nothing is ever purely translated. Nothing. Because we are complex creatures. If you want your writing to always be translated perfectly, you probably should take up computer programming.

So while content and syntax, yes, are the bread-and-butter of your work, always keep in mind that someone is going to be digesting that bread-and-butter.


Bread = content. Butter = syntax. Editing = yumminess.

And, to complicate things further, consider this: What is really communicated to readers is something even deeper than words and even deeper than pictures. Something even harder to measure...emotions.

Emotions like frustration are what we want to to avoid at all costs in academic and technical nonfiction. For instance, when you describe an esoteric term in simpler language, remember that your reader is building a picture in her mind. Use shorter sentences with uncomplicated subjects and predicates so she can build one part of the picture at a time. When you are explaining a concept with which you anticipate your reader will be familiar, you can use longer, more intriguing sentences. When you label a graph, don't force the reader back to the text again and again to understand your main point. If she feels like you are wasting her time, she won't be motivated to trust you in the next chapter.

Emotions like delight and pleasure, of course, should fill our writing. There's no reason not to build pleasure into the most technical of documents. Start by eliminating frustration; anticipate a reader's question, and answer it for him. If the text allows for it, answer it in such a way that he learns something interesting, perhaps even about himself, in the process. Say something respectfully self-deprecating at a surprising moment in the text. Make a connection between a drab concept and a pleasant part of everyday life. Care enough about the reader to make his reading adventuresome.