On Style: Remembering My Audience

20 01 2010

During the past month or so, the majority of my writing has been academic in nature.  I haven’t had a lot of extra energy to devote toward my other writing (in particular, the novel I’m currently working on), but that seems to be how my life goes: I work crazily on one project until I’ve reached a stopping point, and then I put it down to work crazily on another project.  Currently, my project is the spring semester and putting together all my course material for the courses I’m teaching this semester.  Some of the writing I’m doing for that is quite brief; for example, the writing I put onto slides in a slideshow to go with my lecture is brief, but it is still writing.  Even the briefest of writing, though, cannot be written in a vacuum, and so I dedicate today’s post to the fact that every time I sit to write, someone, somewhere out there, is on the receiving end.

How do your readers react to your words? How do you want them to react?

As a writer, it is entirely too easy to slip into a writing groove where the words are flowing, the fingers are flying across the keyboard, and the mind is in a buzz, excited to be making so much progress.  Those grooves are the best feeling you can get while writing because everything seems to come together and just flow from mind to page.  Unfortunately, though, sometimes those grooves can also lead to tunnel vision, where the only things you’re worrying about are what is in your mind and on the page, and not on how what you’re writing will be received by an audience.  Or more specifically, your intended audience.

Naturally, as you can imagine, when I write slides for my students, I write in a completely different style than when I’m putting together research for a paper; how I write when writing a research paper is, then, also very different from how I write when writing a novel.  Sure, there are some qualities of my writing that carry over into all aspects (such as my love for semicolons), but if my style were to remain the same across all those genres, it would be my downfall as a writer.

The words I write on the page should be driven by who will be reading them.

For all writing, I think it’s helpful to talk out loud as you write and pretend that the person you intend to be reading your writing is sitting right in front of you.  When I put together my slides for class, for example, I pretend that I’m standing in front of my students.  I try to use the best words to get across the concepts I’m lecturing on without using words that are so far entrenched in jargon that I’ll lose the majority of students, and I try to add in elements that will keep them interested, such as pictures or activities or discussion questions.  When I write a research paper, I imagine a group of my past professors sitting in front of me, reading what I’m putting down on the computer screen.  Keeping fellow professors interested is often not reliant on a cartoon or visually stimulating picture; instead, I have to show I can “sling the lingo” of the trade and use all those jargon-y words I try to avoid when lecturing to my students, and I try to keep those readers interested through laying the paper out clearly in a way that they’ve come to expect from journal articles in our field and incorporating novel ideas or data into my work.

That same concept applies to writing fiction.  I ask myself who I want to be reading what I’m writing, and then I picture them in front of me.  I talk to them.  I read my words out loud and try to hear those words through my audience’s ears.  Are they interesting?  Do they flow?  Are they real, or do they sound fake?  This is especially helpful for dialogue or descriptions.  Reading a description out loud can help me remember that my audience can’t see what is in my head and won’t know that the door is supposed to be on the left unless I tell them so.  Reading dialogue out loud helps me remember that dialogue is meant to represent spoken language and that how we speak is not how we write.

Who is your audience?

Writing is an active art–the words may be stationary on the page, but they are not meant to stay there and do nothing.  They are meant to spark interest or create a new world or get people talking/thinking about an idea.  The only time writers should write entirely for themselves is if they are writing in a journal.  Otherwise, writing is a conversation, and who we’re writing for should drive how and why we are writing.

I like to speak out loud and pretend I’m talking to my readers to help me remember to write to my audience; what do you do to help you tailor what you’re writing for your intended audience?

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