How I write: Readers aren’t idiots

April 19th, 2012 by jkastronis

Here’s the first of what I plan on being a series of posts about how I approach writing. For the most part, I believe the rules and guidelines I give myself make my own writing stronger. Some of them probably won’t help others write, or only help few others, because they’re unique to me. Others I think are worth universal application. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m as articulate in discussing how I approach writing fiction as I am when actually writing fiction. But as they say, writing is the best way to get better, so I hope as I continue to put these together, I’ll get better at doing them!

One of the foremost rules I obey when writing is one I think most people ignore. I don’t write as if m audience is stupid. Now, that’s not exactly a straightforward rule. I think a lot of people read it and think “Of course not!” only to go and ignore it or misinterpret it. So I’m going to talk a little bit about what that rule means and why it’s important.

What does the rule mean exactly? It means several things all in one.

Most importantly, it means that you should not talk down to your readers. If you write as if your audience as dumb, the writing comes off as pandering. Readers can figure things out as long as your writing is internally clear and logical. You don’t need to go out of your way to explain things and tell them what’s going on. They’ll figure them out on their own. And even if they get it wrong, that’s not bad! Depending on what you’re writing, this can mean the events are being interpreted in multiple ways. This can be a strength, assuming there’s not interpretation about something that’s supposed to be solid and nailed down.

If you write as if your audience won’t understand, you’ll likely wind up violating another oft-repeated rule of writing, “show, don’t tell”. You’ll spend time explaining things to them, things they normally would be able to pick up on their own, instead of having it come up naturally through the narrative. And explanations are almost universally boring, at least in a story. Sure, when you go to read an encyclopedia article to learn something, you can become interested in it. But when you’re reading a story, a long section explaining something pulls the reader out of the narrative and slows down the pace.

As a corollary, at least some of your readers are most likely going to be smarter than you. They’ll pick up the flaws in the story, the logical missteps, the small plot holes, the minute factual errors, and every other problem. Which is part of the reason having a good editor can help a story so much; they can pick these up, point them out to you, and help you correct them.

Of course, you can’t allow yourself to become needlessly convoluted. Your story needs to contain all the relevant information in order for your reads to be able to decipher things. You can’t expect them to pick something up that isn’t there. Nor can you expect readers to untangle a knot of plot threads that have no logical connections.

To sum things up, in general, the best writing is concise, but not blunt; it avoids being vague, but is not obvious.

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