Making peace or war with our readers
In my experience, a useful mantra for any writer or copy editor to repeat is ‘It’s all about the reader.’
Another is ‘I choose to make “peace”, not “war”, with my readers: I consciously strive to make my writing pleasant, effective, alive, clear and enduring.’
Here are some suggestions for the questions and points to keep at the front of our mind when we’re working with precious words – our own or anyone else’s – and we recognise the imperative of making peace with our readers:
Why can’t my readers enjoy my report as much as they’d enjoy a short story, a feature article or an interview?
My material might be dull and dry, but I draft it lovingly and respectfully. I always use the spellings and styles recorded on my customised A-to-Z word list so my readers aren’t distracted by inconsistencies. My readers feel better for reading my document.
Is my purpose to persuade, inform, explain, expose, amuse or argue a case?
I affect and influence my readers so they do things differently after reading my document. I’m not afraid to pack a punch and hit the target. My writing is effective.
Is my patient showing signs of life – or full of dead language in the form of corporate-speak and bureaucratese?
I convey a feeling of ebullience and engagement with my material. I stay ‘on message’. I never lull my readers into complacency, and I sometimes give them a little surprise. I can manipulate the subject, verb/s and predicate in any sentence or clause.
I use active voice as much as possible and permissible. I never personify concepts and inanimate objects. I nominalise minimally. I punctuate judiciously. I limit my sentences to 30 words. I maintain unity, coherence and development in my paragraphs. I quell my urge to write egotistically and idiosyncratically.
My sole aim is to facilitate my readers’ comprehension of my material.
Is my message crystal clear on the first read?
I make sure my readers ‘get it’ on the first read. I never cause my readers to re-read any sentence. I never assume that my readers have my spherical knowledge of the topic at hand; I recognise they accumulate their knowledge in a linear way as they read from left to right. I keep my argument transparent and my logic sequential.
I maintain zero tolerance for muddiness in the form of obfuscation and mystification.
Would my readers ever wish to revisit my document – or commit it to the WPB department?
My content has substance and weight – I know my stuff – but have I given it tough love?
I’m grateful I have a clear flowchart of editorial responsibilities, can undertake effective peer review with my colleagues and have recourse to a professional editor when necessary.
If, on the other hand, we make war with our readers, our writing is waffly, our meanings are ambiguous and at least some of our content is plain ridiculous.
Here are some questions and points that bad writers and copy editors might have at the back of their mind when working with precious words – their own or anyone else’s – and they end up making war with their readers, whether out of ignorance or design.
Am I a politician or public servant, or a journalist being paid by the word?
I try to ‘add value’ by waffling on, that is, by adding what’s variously known as fudge, fat, padding, obfuscation, mystification, verbosity and verbiage. I use 40 words when 15 would suffice. I patronise and bore my readers. I’m often not sure of my meaning or my point of view.
I allow my superiors to veto my use of plain, simple English. I accept I’m not to be seen to say or do anything. I use passive voice so I can omit the agent of the action. I nominalise, personify and use jargon with impunity.
Do I know that the favoured corporate word ‘enhance’ has seven possible meanings? I don’t know, and if I did, I wouldn’t care, because I wouldn’t know which precise word to use instead.
I don’t recognise that the subordinating conjunctions ‘while’, ‘as’ and ‘since’ have two possible meanings.
I frequently don’t know what I mean, and I habitually leave my meaning open to interpretation.
I forget that my readers are already suffering from information overload and won’t thank me for scattering my precious verbal bullets.
Am I for real?
I introduce unintended humour and give my readers a giggle at my company’s expense. I write of ‘small business people’, ‘short course managers’, ‘high school students’ and ‘plain clothes policemen’.
I use ‘minimal punctuation’. I splice two sentences by putting a comma between them. I also use a comma to separate my subject from my verb/s.
I don’t know the useful convention of whether to choose the relative pronoun ‘that’ or ‘which’.
I use dangling modifiers.
I stick a greengrocer’s apostrophe in some of my plural nouns – report’s; DVD’s; 1990’s.
I send my readers on a treasure hunt to get to my point. I see no ridiculousness in omitting the key noun in a statement such as ‘Mr Packer was engaged to former swimsuit Jodhi Meares,’ or missing the humour in a statement such as ‘Unlike other contraceptive devices, Essure can be inserted in your doctor’s office.’
Whatever type of writing you generate, you must never make your readers wonder what you’re on about – or, indeed, what you’re ‘on’.
The end product is what’s important, not the writer’s or editor’s ego.
Sister CEO, Brother Bureaucrat and Cousin Creative, remember: you have the power to turn war into peace!