Your readers are not your enemies.
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?
You might think: I don’t think that—I love my readers.
Or maybe: I’d love MORE readers.
No matter what kind of writer (or speaker) you are, it’s amazing how the subtle feeling that your audience is the enemy can sneak in. Once it’s there, it can give writing a defensive tone that is a major turn-off—the opposite of what we all want.
Recently, I was asked to write a guest post for an organization that I really admire. I was excited and flattered, and eager to seize the opportunity. I scrabbled away on the keyboard and pulled together a draft with a smug little glow. Totally watertight, I thought.
However, when a friend read over my draft, he didn’t rave about my awesome argument. Instead, he said:
“This reads as kinda dead—it sounds like you’re expecting readers to tear you to shreds.”
I didn’t like to hear it—but I knew he was right. In my eagerness to reach a new audience with an impactful, persuasive, logical argument, I had adopted an uptight, defensive tone.
Instead of letting my ideas flow, I had hedged them in with qualifying statements like “I’m just saying,” “It’s not as though,” and forceful, argumentative language like “everybody must agree that….” However, I hadn’t followed through on ideas and said what I really wanted to say.
I’d unconsciously assumed readers were going to be mean-spirited, and held myself back as a result. I wanted to get it right.
The result: writing without personality.
Where Do We Pick This Habit Up?
Part of my issue was a nasty hangover from academia, where the norm is writers constantly looking for flaws in each other’s arguments, and trying to score brownie points by proving each other wrong (this is the norm for most politicians, too).
In his article, “Why Academics’ Writing Stinks,” Steven Pinker makes a great point about this kind of defensiveness: “Writers use hedges in the vain hope that it will get them off the hook, or at least allow them to plead guilty to a lesser charge, should a critic ever try to prove them wrong. A classic writer, in contrast, counts on the common sense and ordinary charity of his readers.”
In other words, good writers trust their readers to have “common sense and ordinary charity.”
But wait, you might cry. The internet is full of assholes!
Well, it does feel like that, when reading the average comments thread.
But here’s the great part: it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter because self-justifying, overcautious writing doesn’t actually protect you from haters anyway. As some wise person said, “Haters gonna hate.” If you hold yourself back because of the haters, all you’ll do is bore your receptive readers.
When writers trusts their readers to be halfway decent, creativity and inspiration are more free flowing.
Good Writers Take Risks
For any kind of new or original thinking to emerge, there needs to be a degree of risk-taking.
A writer needs to be willing to step out of the known, and start probing the rich domain of the unknown. They need to ask questions that no one has answered yet, and sit comfortably with a degree of uncertainty.
The best writers can leave things open-ended, causing readers to ask questions for themselves.
If I assume my readers to be my enemies—however subtly—I’m not going to venture into this exciting territory. I’m going to stick to the safe zone of what I already know, and what I know people already agree with. I’m going to say what I think keeps hostile eyes happy, rather than saying something original or true for me.
I’m Just Being Defensive
Here are a few defensive phrases that I often come across while editing:
- “I’m just saying” — I say this when I’m on the defensive, or trying hard not to offend someone. It implies that what you’re saying IS offensive, and minimizes your point behind a whole lot of defensiveness. I’m just saying that it’s not very useful.
- “I’m not saying that [something extreme that no one was going to think anyway]” — We hadn’t thought of that until you said it. If I’m writing this phrase, I’m usually feeling a bit uncertain and insecure, and trying to build a little moat around my argument, so none of those mean readers can attack it.
- “I think” — We know you think whatever it is; you’re the writer! By adding an extra level of justification, this phrase suggests that your wonderful writing can’t stand on its own.
- “Everybody will agree” (and other inflated claims) — This is just plain false, and you know it. It suggests that you’re scared readers won’t agree, and they need to be bossed around until they do.
- “I’m sure you’ll agree” — If you were really sure, you wouldn’t need to write this.
- “We must” — And other very forceful phrases. Such bossy language assumes that your enemies—I mean, readers—are going to disagree and need to be intimidated into submission. Often found in manifestos and political speeches.
- “Probably,” “It appears,” “Generally,” “Basically,” “Kind of,” “Somewhat” — Qualifiers like these might be appropriate sometimes, but an overload of vague or noncommittal hedging comes across as a lack of confidence. These phrases creep into my writing when I’m intimidated by my audience and affecting a false humility to try and avoid criticism. Or alternatively, when I haven’t done my research, and feel a bit shaky.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with qualifying statements (like this one), but good writers use them by choice, not as a default to fend off all possible disagreement.
Stand By Your Words
Don’t say anything you don’t truly mean.
It’s much harder to speak confidently and charismatically when you’re saying something you don’t really believe in. Writing things you don’t truly mean leads to lackluster, uninspired language. Which then leads to defensive, protective writing habits.
As writers, we sense when something’s not quite true, but can fall into the trap of unthinkingly hedging dodgy calls, rather than replacing them with something more valid. It’s like putting extra deodorant on when you know that actually, you need to take a proper shower. We can still smell the bad odor.
Conversely, writing full of vitality comes when you have something to say that you would absolutely stand by. If you’re confident about something—whether a well-researched fact or a deeply-held intuition—your audience will respond to your confidence. It’s attractive!
This takes some courage, as it’s more scary to put something out there that is actually important to us. Only writers with some degree of trust in themselves and their readers can do so. If staying safe is your prime goal, you’re going to have a hard time being sincere. Audiences have always responded to those who are willing to be genuine.
Essayist and memoirist Anaïs Nin knew this, when she wrote the following in 1949, urging writers to be as authentic as possible:
Under the most rigid conventionality there is often an individual, a human being with original thoughts or inventive fantasy, which he does not dare expose for fear of ridicule, and this is what the writer and artist are willing to do for us. They are guides and map makers to greater sincerity. They are useful, in fact indispensable, to the community. They keep before our eyes the variations which make human beings so interesting.
Want to be interesting? Just be real.
Hostile Readers? Or Overactive Inner Critic…
We’ve all got an inner critic.
Kept well-tamed, your inner critic is a good ally, helping you improve your craft. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find there are times when the inner critic escapes its little cubicle and goes on a rampage, throwing unfair criticism all over the place.
This isn’t usually all that helpful, and often it’s downright mean.
In terms of writing, this means that an over-excited inner critic can convince us that readers are equally critical. We project our own doubts onto readers and expect hostility. The result? Writing that plays it safe.
Make peace with your inner critic, and you’ll feel a whole lot more relaxed and creative. You don’t have to shut them up; just recognize when they’re overstepping their mandate, and don’t be fooled into thinking you always have to listen.
When it comes down to it, trusting your readers not to be assholes really just means trusting yourself as a writer. You don’t need defenses, because you’re awesome.
No Faces Doesn’t Mean No Humans
Writing can be a lonely affair.
It’s ironic that an occupation that’s all about communication and connection can involve so little human contact. And in the age of the internet, we can have thousands of readers without ever meeting any of them in the flesh.
In one sense, this is great. It opens doors to new audiences, allows for connection across geographic divides, and is more easily shareable than ever before. We can write expansive treatises about cultural acceptance from the back of the most conservative redneck suburb, and still find acceptance and success.
But there are definitely downsides.
It’s easier to trust our friends than strangers, and we’re more likely to get defensive with those we don’t trust. So it’s much easier to get defensive when you’re writing for faceless masses on the internet. It’s harder to know what they’re going to like, how they’re going to react, and what their sense of humor is. It’s sometimes easier to assume readers are a hostile mob, waiting to poke holes in your comma usage and scorn your funny jokes.
But behind every comment, blog post, profile or persona is (surprise!) a human being.
Trust Your Audience and Get Writing
Your readers don’t want to read “you-not-getting-it-wrong.”
They want to read you, confidently nailing it.
When you trust your audience enough to take a few risks and reveal yourself, you offer something that is counterintuitively far more pleasing than if you sat there strategically trying to please. Strategically trying to be liked comes from a paranoia of being disliked, and again, this leads to defensive, safe, boring writing. Very unappealing.
Whenever I read something urging writers to religiously incorporate feedback, message test, and hone their tone to suit their audience, I feel like something is missing. Yes, it’s important to use skillful means to connect with your audience. Yes, it’s important to be open to feedback.
But if your only compass is somewhere outside of you, you’re lost.
What’s missing is recognition of the fact that we’re all human, and are all able to connect on that basis.
I don’t think many great novelists ever message tested their masterpieces. They just said some true stuff, and other people read it and felt that, yes, that was true for them too.
Recognizing the similarities between you and your readers, rather than just the differences, allows for more vulnerable, interesting, ground-breaking writing. Say what is true for you rather than what you think is true for your audience—because your writing is actually more likely to resonate with them.
Trust that at the core, you’re not all that different.
Remember: you have a unique perspective on the world that no one else shares.
As a writer, you have a great opportunity to share this and inspire and inform others. There’s no need to apologize for or prop up your writing.
Trust your readers, give your inner critic a cookie to shut him or her up, and get to work!