In Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams, who plays the main character’s therapist, says to his old frenemy, “It’s not about you …it’s about the boy.” In writing nonfiction, it’s not about you. It’s about the reader.
I like to consider readers first because they bring a lot to the reading process. You can produce a better piece of writing when you begin with the reader in mind.
What do readers bring to the reading process? At minimum, they bring reading skill. They also bring knowledge about the world, prior technical knowledge, and motivation. Motivation is a complex idea that encompasses a reader’s purpose, how much they want to achieve that purpose, and a host of cognitive and other psychological processes related to why they are reading. You can use your understanding of these reader characteristics to make your writing interesting, engaging, and useful.
Editing for Reading Skill
Your writing needs to mesh with the reading ability of your audience. If you’re writing for a general audience, then your choice of words, sentence lengths, and paragraph lengths should match the ability level of the average reader. Reading levels—which use word lengths and sentence lengths in their calculations—provide a rough guide to an audience’s ability. An average reader in the United States reads at a 7th or 8th grade level. Between first grade and the end of high school, a person’s vocabulary expands from around 8,000 to 14,000 words to more than 80,000 words. So, even if you write at that 7th or 8th grade level, there is a lot of territory to explore.
In nonfiction, there is little to gain from using big words and uniformly long sentences. An average word is approximately 5 letters, and an average sentence is between 15 and 20 words. However, if you write all of your sentences with 5-letter words and make them all 15 to 20 words long, your writing would be tedious. Compare a speaker who delivers a speech in a monotone to dynamic speakers like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bill Clinton, or Shaquille O’Neal. Words and sentences of varying lengths go into that average number and need to go into your writing as well.
The same idea applies to paragraphs. Paragraphs can be so long that by the time they get to the end readers forget the topic stated at the beginning. People are going to feel annoyed at best if they cannot follow the logic and stream of the thoughts you express.
Interesting writing presents a small challenge to readers. You nurture and maintain that spark of interest with a varied vocabulary, different word lengths, and a variety of sentence lengths and structures. The pace of the writing needs to vary, much the same as the pace and cadence of a great speech vary.
Even if you don’t know anything else about your readers, you know they know something about the world. Most people have direct experience with the physical world, they bring this experience to reading, and you can use it to make your writing accessible. You can use physical experiences to build concrete examples for abstract concepts. You can use social experiences to do the same. A great example of this technique is how Paul Krugman uses rubbernecking to illustrate the unintended consequences of the economic concept paradox of thrift. Almost everyone has experienced a traffic jam caused by drivers slowing down to look at an accident scene.
How to write about technical knowledge is a little trickier. Can you assume your readers know about gravity? Can you assume they know how a cartographer makes a map? Can you assume they know what structured programming is? The answer to these questions is, “It depends.” The younger in a given field readers are, the less likely they have any knowledge of it. So, assume no knowledge for a general or introductory audience, and increasing amounts of knowledge for professional audiences.
When you don’t know what readers know, the safest approach is to define technical terms and explain technical concepts the first time you use them. Some people call this technique glossing. Even professionals can benefit from glossing technical terms because definitions can vary.
You can make good use of both prior and technical knowledge in the headings that provide structure to long-form writing—longer articles, essays, or books. The headings signal something about what is coming next. They provide a roadmap as a person reads and provide cues for reviewing material. In a digital environment, they can help make it easier to find topics—for example, through bookmarks.
For example, you might find a heading like “How to use Student’s t-test” in a book on statistics. Or, you might find a slightly different heading: “How to Calculate Student’s t-test.” You could also find a heading like “How to Compare the Difference between Two Means.” Your prior knowledge is what enables you know that “how to use” is different from “how to calculate,” regardless of whether you know what a Student’s t-test is. The third example, “How to Compare…” is broader and clearer, and it relies less on technical knowledge.
Can Writing Be Motivating?
Writing can be engaging, interesting, and inspiring, but I don’t think it can be motivating. I am using the term motivation in a technical sense, not in the common sense. In psychology, most definitions of motivation agree that it is a process within a person and that it initiates behavior oriented toward reaching a goal. Therefore, motivation is something within the reader, not the text. Readers might want to, need to, or be driven to learn something new or relearn something old. They might be interested in being entertained while learning something new. They may feel that they must read your book and nothing about it will be particularly interesting; reading your book is a chore.
If you know your readers—who they are likely to be, what their lives might be like, how old they might be, what they might be interested in—you can use your writing to connect with them. You build connections through concrete examples that tie in to readers’ experiences and by using words in a way that is sensitive to prior knowledge or a lack thereof.
One way to articulate what you know about your readers is to create personas, which are simple sketches of reader characteristics. For example, adult readers can be:
- Over age 18
- Any gender
- Any ethnicity
- English readers, but English may not be their first language or spoken language
- Readers can possibly have some disability.
- If readers are between 18 and 25, there’s about a 40 percent chance they are in college.
- If readers are 25 or older, there’s about a 32 percent chance they have a college degree.
How do you find out more about your potential readers, enough to build a reader persona? One way is to read what they are likely to be reading. In addition to reading the best writing, read about pop culture. Find out—or speculate about—where your readers hang out, and spend some time hanging out there with them, reading the same things they read. You might follow a specific hashtag on Twitter, read blogs on the topic you are writing about, and do similar reading on Facebook, BuzzFeed, Instagram, or Snapchat. Don’t confine your reading to an article or blog post; read the comments as well. You might play a video game or MMO to learn about different pacing that your readers experience.
When Do You Worry About the Reader?
Should you concern yourself with these issues when you sit down to write? My answer is a qualified no. Considering issues like word length, vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph length, and pacing is something to do while editing. Having an idea of the reader in mind is something to do when writing. But your chief concern should be your topic, what you know about it, and what you want people to know about it.
Once you have a solid draft, you can revise for the reader. This is a good time to pull an editor into the process. Part of my job as a developmental editor is to be a guinea pig reader and an advocate for readers. Reader personas guide my work more than my own opinion about what constitutes good writing. In fact, I will test my opinion against a reader persona or even set it aside.
When I edit, I make sure the structure of a work is coherent. Are topics and subtopics in a sequence that helps readers understand the material? Are similar ideas grouped? Are terms and concepts introduced when they are used rather than before or not at all? Can readers follow the logic of the exposition? If not, what needs to change?
Once I address structural issues, I turn to detailed issues such as pacing, word choice, sentence structure, and so on. After working with these mechanics, I consider ways to make the writing clearer, more interesting, and more engaging. The order is important because structure and logic must be coherent for a piece of writing to work at all.
Editing for readers is one issue I focus on when working on a manuscript. In future blog posts, I’ll talk about the macro and micro structure of a book, narrative flow in nonfiction, thought arc, and many other topics.
For more information or if you want to talk about a book project, use the contact form, send me an email, or call.