Don’t Patronize Your Readers

e.b. white quote

In my opinion, this is the most solid piece of advice a writer can give to another because it addresses the most important aspect of the craft: the reader.

Or, in English Comp terms, the audience. Since the concept seems so simple, phrases like, “You can’t write a letter to your boss that sounds like you wrote it to your best friend,” are bandied about.

English teachers try to make it sound like audience is a “common sense” part of writing, but they never explain (at least in my experience) how writing should differ for each audience. Or how it should stay the same.

There is tons of advice out there suggesting that writers identify their readership before they start writing. That’s great advice for non-fiction writers or authors who know who their audience is going to end up being, but what about the rest of us?

What about the writers who address a general audience? How does that affect our writing? How do we keep from becoming, as E.B. White suggests, too patronizing?

Over the years, I’ve found that the best way to avoid it is to write with the assumption that anyone who decides to read something I’ve written is, at the least, my intellectual equal.

That means I don’t try to “dumb down” my writing by making it sound like I’m writing to an 8-year old audience. Even the children’s books I’ve read (that are any good) don’t have authors who assume the child reading their books are stupid. Sure, the sentences are shorter and more understandable vocabulary is used, but there’s none of that “Aw, you’re so cute and dumb, let me try to show you what I’m talking about by cooing at you through my words.”

Those are the writers who get under my skin – those are the books I want to turn into weapons or kindling rather than treat them as real writing. Because real writing, to me, means writing that isn’t condescending, and it means a story that the author assumes I can follow despite all the crazy plot loops and twists he throws my way.

Fiction Audience

In fiction, assuming that your audience is, at the very least, your intellectual equal, is the key element in eliminating excess background information. Too much back-story, a.k.a. info-dump, can – and will – kill a novel. When I draft, I info-dump like crazy because I don’t usually outline when I write fiction, so I am making the world and the rules up as I go. For me, that means when revision comes around, the first thing I have to do is pull out all of that out. Afterwards, I have to reintroduce the most important parts of that information back into the story in areas where it’s vital for the reader to have it.

When you leave too much back-story in your fiction, it does two things:

1) It bores the reader because there’s nothing to separate the back-story from the real story.

2) It insults the reader because the back-story is full of too much “well duh” information.

The following excerpt is from one of the novels I’m working on and is demonstrative of how leaving back-story out of the action is one of the best ways to hook people:

Quentin strode into the room, eyes narrowed. “Get your things,” he snapped.

I grabbed a duffel bag, throwing clothes in haphazardly. I’d never seen him angry, and I didn’t want to risk making it worse.  Taking a cursory look around the room, I hid a flinch at the scowl on his face.

“Take some care,” he said. “We have enough time for you to fold your clothes properly.”

I flushed and removed everything I’d placed in the bag and started over. Carelessness was his biggest pet peeve and with him in this mood…well. Better not to risk it. “Where are we going?”

“We aren’t going anywhere. I’m sending you to the Safe House.”

The Safe House? Why was he sending me there? I wasn’t the greatest fighter, but I wasn’t so weak I needed the protection of a Safe House. My thoughts must have shown on my face.

“Don’t argue,” he said. “The Pulse is dead. He didn’t appoint a successor. I need you out of the way.”

I stared at him for a solid minute before I regained a portion of my composure. “He’s dead?”

“Yes. Hurry and finish packing. There’s only two hours left of true-dark. I need you safe before then.”

The implications of the Pulse having died without appointing a successor caught up to me. “There’s going to be War,” I whispered, sitting down on the edge of the bed, packing all but forgotten. That was bad. That was very bad.

Notice how much I don’t explain in that excerpt, but also how well it hooks. Leaving information out is a great way to draw readers in because it makes them ask, “What the hell’s going on?”

Engage the audience by making them curious, and you will hold their attention through every page. Curiosity is an inherent human trait, so we all want answers when questions arise.

If I’d explained exactly what a Pulse was, why the MC (whose name is Damon) needs to go to a Safe House, or why true-dark matters within that excerpt, the hook would’ve been lost.

Non-Fiction Audience

In non-fiction, the key to avoiding patronizing your audience is the same as in fiction: assuming the reader is, at least, your intellectual equal.

I have helped classmates in the past with their essays, and the number one problem I see is the way they address the audience. They over-explain concepts and, by doing so, make the reader feel like an idiot.

The best way to write an essay is to write it as if you are writing it to yourself. Because we generally don’t patronize ourselves, that technique keeps our writing from becoming patronizing towards others.

The best way to figure out whether your essay seems patronizing is to read it out loud to yourself and assume that someone else wrote it. If it makes you feel insulted, rewrite it until it doesn’t.

Recap: The best way to avoid patronizing a reader when you write is to write with the assumption that all of your readers will be, at the very least, your intellectual equals. 


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