Good Manners for Writers

by Susan McCloskey |

Every piece of writing begins in the privacy of the writer’s mind. For many writers, translating our thoughts first into words and then to a page or a screen is the most difficult part of the process, a chance for the electronic equivalent of balled-up drafts to overflow the wastebasket.

We’re unlikely to make this effort unless we want someone to read what results. We pick up a pen or activate a keyboard with the intent or the hope that the private record of our thoughts will become a communication with another person.

That’s why writers go to so much trouble. We prepare. We decide what we want to say and devise the structure that helps us say it. We look for precise and vivid words to express our points. We revise until the connections among the parts of the draft are clear and exact. We choose facts, details, and examples that our readers will recognize. We adopt a style meant to surprise, captivate, inform, or amuse. At every turn, we try to improve the odds that readers will read what we’ve written—and maybe even find it worth their while.

So much effort goes into creating an effective piece of writing that we sometimes forget a simple truth: Readers respond well to writers who treat them well. That’s why writers need good manners—not a whole etiquette book’s worth, just four simple rules.

First, present your reader with an error-free text. Don’t foist on her a text marred by typos, misspellings, misplaced or absent punctuation, or errors that even your grammar checker can catch. You are trying to share your ideas with your reader, not to demonstrate your faulty command of the language or to suggest that you’re too busy to clean up your own mess. Why place obstacles in your reader’s path, diverting her attention from your meaning to the sloppiness of its expression?

Second, remember that no reader is obliged to read your text even once, let alone twice. This humbling fact means that you must write so clearly that one reading will suffice. Be clear in both the words you choose and the sentences you construct. Don’t ask your reader to settle for the almost-right word when you could have chosen the right word. If she has to reread a sentence because you complicated its syntax, stretched its length, or gambled that a thought’s half-baked formulation would go without notice, she will become less and less willing to keep reading.

Third, guide your reader through your document, reminding her that you are at her elbow, ready to steer her over and through even the most demanding terrain. Use the opening paragraph to tell her what your subject is, why you’re writing about it, why it should interest her, and what, if anything, you would like her to do in response. Every paragraph that follows should advance her understanding of your material. It should open with a sentence that indicates its focus and helps the reader see how the point you’re about to make relates to the point you’ve just finished making. If you plan to make seven points in support of your thesis, announce your intention and then clearly mark each stage of its carrying out. Before you present the evidence that supports a point, tell your reader that that’s what you’re about to do. If you must digress, say so. No reader wants to wander around in your document, trying to figure out what it’s about or why you’re telling her what you’re telling her. If you’ve made her want to go where you’re going, be sure to take her along with you.

Fourth, be the best company you can be. The possibilities depend on the occasion, of course, and on your imagination. Here are a few: Bring some pizazz to your style, expressing your thoughts in the most interesting way you can devise. If appropriate, gently insist on the connection you’re forging, referring to yourself as I and to your reader as you. Directly engage your reader by issuing a polite command, such as Consider these likely outcomes, or by posing an occasional question, such as What’s the likeliest outcome? Delight her by providing a concrete example of an abstract point, an illustrative anecdote, a witty turn of phrase. In short, behave like a writer who is keeping the reader in mind.

If you treat your reader well, she’ll reward you by reading what you’ve written. Isn’t that why you took the trouble to write in the first place?

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