Treat Your Reader as an Equal

To whom are you writing? To kids? Retirees? Ham radio operators? There’s one thing they all have in common.

No one likes being talked down to.

Treat your audience as an equal. That means assume they are smart people and can remember what you tell them. Even kids!

When you reveal new information, you need do it only once. If you don’t refer to it again until the end of the book, you may insert a quick reminder, such as “Eunice, Ron Storter’s evil sister, said…” and you can go from there.

Why? Doesn’t it make it easier for an audience if you remind them now and again? Actually, no. Telling someone something he or she already knows is talking down to that reader, because you’re assuming they’re dunces and don’t remember. They’re saying “yes, I already know that” as you blunder on. So you only need to describe a scene once (the murderer’s bedroom) and after that you can just say “murderer’s bedroom,” although, of course, you’re at liberty to add more information.

Let’s take an example. As the murderer hastened into her bedroom to pull the gun out from under the mattress, your narrative is in a hurry too. So you might mention the painting hanging above the dresser. Fourteen chapters later, when the murderer puts the gun back under the mattress, she’s probably a bit pensive (or scared), so you can show her gazing into that painting and reveal it’s a print of Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount.

You didn’t talk down to your reader. But if the first time she was in the bedroom you mentioned the lace curtains, you don’t need to mention them again unless something about them changes (for example, flapping in the breeze).

What if your reader really is a dunce? Think about that. This dunce bought your book. What does that say about his judgment? But let’s press on: a dunce bought your book. The dunce will read and come across something strange, so he’ll go back to reread the section he missed or forgot. Pretty smart of him, right?

What about using big words? Assuming you’re avoiding being pretentious, you may have a wonderful word that exactly describes your penurious character. Penurious? Better look that up. Most people know what it means. If they don’t, they can figure it out from the context. Or, for that matter, they’ll grab a dictionary. In this regard I like the English practice better than the American. The English seem quite happy to include whatever words they like. Yes, it leaves me reaching for the dictionary, but I enjoy prose that means exactly what it says. Americans seem to think any word with more that one syllable is too hard for readers, so we end up talking about the wealthy great aunt who insisted on going dutch for lunch when your hero was a poor college student.

And you’d be amazed by how much children can understand. The Harry Potter books put to rest the assumption that children’s books had to be simple. The sentences, imagery, scenery, and themes are quite complex—enough to satisfy many adult readers. Yet what books have proven irresistibly popular with youngsters? Harry Potter! In fact, it’s their wonderful complexity that makes Harry’s world come alive.

Even if you’re the world’s foremost expert on a subject, use the “Scientific American” approach. Scientific American assumes that its audience is well educated and very knowledgeable, just not on the particular subject at hand. You can do the same. All you need to convey is the new information, not all the background leading up to it, assuming such background would be familiar to a well educated and knowledgeable individual. After all, you’re writing a novel, not a textbook. If your villain is a taxidermist, you needn’t explain taxidermy. But once your reader has read your description of the taxidermy shop, including all the dead heads on the wall, they’ll have the principles firmly in mind.

Let’s suppose you’re an expert fly fisherman. Your hero is a fly fisherman. You’d really like to impart your knowledge to the up-and-coming novice fly fisherman. Then you should write a magazine article! For your novel, you can include just enough details about fly fishing to persuade readers (who might also be expert fly fishermen) that you know what you’re talking about.

Example: I’m a ham radio operator. I can describe an on-the-air experience by saying I tuned through the 40-meter ham band looking for CW signals at a speed I could understand. Need I say more? The non-ham doesn’t care about the meaning of 40 meters or CW, and the hams out there know that you know what you’re talking about. When in the next sentence you mention that you heard the Morse code and wrote down the message, your non-expert reader is right with you.

So, treat your readers as equals. They’ll appreciate the confidence you place in them.

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