February 4, 2011


In borrowed scraps of time, I’m a freelance editor. Consequently, I know a thing or two about writing. More importantly, I know a thing or two about how not to write. Some of this is really directed to all those scientists out there that I sometimes edit for, but hopefully this can help anyone who needs to write something that needs to be convincing.

I was recently treated to some really terrible writing destined for a congressman’s desk. As is so often the case, the writer completely ignored his audience. Writers who do so risk losing that audience. If no one reads what you write, you’re kind of screwed. In this particular case, no congressman would ever sift through that garbage to get the actual good point trying to be made. This is bad for the program that needs funding.

So, rule 1 of Jamie’s guide to being a better writer: Before you ever touch a keyboard or pick up a pen, think about who you’re writing for.

It’s all well and good to say write for your audience. But what does it really matter? It may be a matter of who ends up liking what you wrote. Or, if you’re writing a proposal to get a project funded, it could be a matter of considerable importance. Think about it: If the person who’s giving you the money can’t understand a thing you’ve said, are you going to get the money? Probably not. And the decision will have nothing to do with how good your idea is. The reader didn’t even know the idea was good!

I’ve noticed this phenomenon most when scientists are writing for non-scientists, but you could substitute in any expert writing for non-experts. Readers dislike two things very greatly: writers who talk over their heads and writers who treat them like dumb kids. Your job is to try for something in between. Respect readers’ intelligence, but also remember their limitations.

Let’s try a fun example: sex. Sex is something that adults will talk about quite a bit. But you will inherently apply my principle of considering your audience when you do so. If you’re talking to your best friend about sex, you’re going to use very different language from if you were explaining sex to your three-year-old who wants to know how the baby got in Mommy’s tummy. If you’re talking about sex with your doctor, you’d use a whole different set of vocabulary.

And it’s not just the words you use; it’s how you relate ideas and use examples. Going back to the whole sex thing: when you talk to the three-year-old, you’re going to scale down the complexity of the idea. Maybe you’ll skip the whole pre-marital option and just tell your kiddo, “Sex is when mommies and daddies love each other very much.” It’s completely irrelevant to this particular situation that sex is a possibility outside of marriage. Keep this in mind to avoid the excruciating background and detail of your expert topic that, really, no one cares about. If you don’t absolutely need to introduce a concept, don’t. Likewise, if you must have some background to understand something, include it! Don’t assume that your audience (your three-year-old) will have all the knowledge and references that you have.

When you’re done writing whatever it is you’re writing, read it. Read it while pretending to be your audience. If you’re trying to convince, make sure you’re actually making a compelling argument. Make sure that your examples are clear and that they’re relatable to normal experience. (How big is the oil spill? It could fill XX football stadiums.) And most importantly, make sure that it’s clear what’s in it for the reader if he or she agrees with your point. Are you saving money or time? Make sure you say that.

To sum up: Writing to sound important: bad. Writing to share knowledge like an equal: good.

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