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LJ Idol Home Game, Week 6: Not of Your World
cap, captain miss america
All writing can be categorized into two groups: Writing for oneself, and writing for others.

Every piece of writing has the potential to be read by others, but sometimes, other people are not your intended audience. For example, an outline for an essay has the intended audience of you, unless your professor demands to see the outline as part of the grading process for the course, and then, suddenly, it has the intended audience of the professor. A grocery list might be intended for you, or might be intended for a spouse or roommate.

We change the way we write when the intended audience is someone besides the author. And we change the way we write based on who the intended audience is. Let's say you're a rocket scientist. If you're writing a paper on rocket science for a bunch of rocket scientists, there's going to be a certain amount of shared experience that you assume your fellow rocket scientists have. If you're writing a paper on rocket science for a high school career symposium, you are going to assume that the high schoolers who want to learn about rocket science as a potential career don't have that shared experience. But they do have some shared experience: probably a basic grounding in introductory physics and math, and some ideas about what a rocket is.

So we tailor our writing to our intended audience.

When you're writing something that is personally important to you, be it in an essay format or as narrative prose, it's important to gauge the shared experience that you have with your readers. This can be true in fiction as well as non-fiction. For example, let's say you're still a rocket scientist. You want to write a suspense thriller that has to do with the rocket science industry. Think John Grisham, but with rocket science instead of law. If you write it with a lot of technical rocket sciencey jargon, it might be very appealing to other rocket scientists, but you've chosen to limit your readers to a niche audience.

This isn't necessarily a bad choice, but it's a choice. Some people only want to write for a very specific, limited audience, and that is cool, but some people want to write for the most generalized audience possible.

And sometimes you can't choose your audience. Which means that you end up with a different choice:
--Do you write for the part of the audience that will enjoy the exact same thing you do, and risk alienating the rest of your audience?
--Or do you try to find something that will appeal to the largest proportion of that audience possible?

Neither of these is a "better" choice, per say. But they do have different results. The former doesn't take a lot of extra effort on the part of you as a writer: you just keep on writing what you like to write. If you're really lucky, what you like to write is something that is really poopular with that very eclectic audience. If you're less lucky, what you like to write is very popular with a sliver of that eclectic audience, and they love you, but everyone else sort of says, "meh." And you live with that choice, to cater to a very selective audience.

The latter is a bit harder to do unless you're that very lucky person who really enjoys writing things that really appeal to a big group. You can still write what you like. But you need to walk a careful line between alienating your audience by assuming they are too much like you, and alienating your audience by assuming they are too different from you.

In the first case, you might write about rocket science, but forget that your audience doesn't know a lot of technical jargon or inside rocket scientist jokes. So people might get a sense of what you're trying to do, but not really quite get everything-- or they might think they're getting everything when in fact the jokes are going over their heads. If your rocket science jokes are too specific, even really smart readers might not realize you were making jokes. And this isn't just true with jokes; it can be true with a persuasive argument or even a piece of personal narrative.

In the second case, you might go out of your way to explain ideas or define words that your audience would be smart enough to figure out from context. It's a classic case of telling instead of showing. Say you use a very difficult word: do you define it? Most people will recognize that it is a difficult word that they don't recognize, and are capable of looking it up if they want to know what it means and don't understand it from context. Defining it can break the pace of your story, and can also make people wonder if you think they're not clever enough as readers.

I tend to be of the belief that most people are just as smart as me, but not necessarily as knowledgeable as me if I'm talking about a very specific subject in which I have a certain amount of mastery. This is generally a good rule to follow. Some people will be as knowledgeable as you, but not all. Most will be as smart as you, and many will be smarter than you. It's always important to have respect for your readers and to genuinely believe that they are as smart as you are, if not smarter. Everyone likes to be respected, and people can tell from your writing if you don't respect them, or if you're talking down to them, or if you assume that you're smarter than they are.

But it's also important to remember that specialized subjects aren't all things as intimidating as rocket science. They can be thinks like sports, television shows, or even the town where you live. You might take for granted that everyone knows what your regional grocery store chain is, because they have them in all the towns near you. But people in a different state or country won't know what you mean when you talk about them, unless it's obvious from context that you're talking about a grocery store. Even though many people have read Harry Potter, if you're a serious fan who has read all the books six times apiece and spends hours talking about theories relating to the books, you might make assumptions that everyone knows specific details of the books, whereas even someone who has read all the books once might be lost and confused when you start talking about a favorite pet theory that is so popular in Harry Potter fandom that you can take for granted when talking in fandom circles that everyone knows what you're referencing.

When you're writing about a very specialized subject, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

--How likely is it that my readers will understand my references in this passage?
Sometimes it is very likely-- for example, if you are talking about something really universal, they are likely to understand it. If you're talking about something that has to do with a specialized interest, it is a lot less likely. The more eccentric the interest is, and the more embedded in that interest the reference is, the less likely it becomes. For example, if you're writing about American football, you can assume that many people will know that a touchdown is a way of scoring. Slightly fewer people will know that a touchdown happens when the ball is run to or caught in the end zone, or that a touchdown consists of six points plus one or two possible extra points. Many fewer people might know the specifics of a certain player's touchdown reception statistics.

--Do my readers need to know what this means to understand what I am trying to communicate in this passage?
This is pretty self-explanatory!

--Will my readers who don't know what this means realize that they are missing something?
This is really important! If your readers realize there's something they don't get, they may go look it up on their own if it interests them. If they don't realize that they're not getting something (and are thus missing out on your clever joke or brilliant turn of phrase), then everyone-- you and your readers-- might be losing out.

--Is it necessary to the piece I am writing to include this information that readers may not be familiar with?
Sometimes, there's just no way of writing what you want to write without that specialized information. Sometimes, you might not actually need it at all. Think hard about whether it really needs to be there.

--Is there a way to make it clear from context what this thing my readers might not be familiar with is?
It's always better to avoid blatant exposition. Maybe you can work it into the story: if, in your story, someone scores a two point conversion, you might be able to get away without explaining what a two point conversion is. If someone in your story mentions in their dialogue that such and such player had such and such record, you might be able to make it sound natural and not like you are lecturing your readers.

If you can't figure out a way to get the information in without lecturing your readers, go back up to that question about whether it's necessary to include the information again. Because if there's one thing that can alienate a reader faster than not getting what something is about, it's making them feel like you think they're stupid.

Sometimes, lecturing is okay. If you're writing an informational essay, lecturing can even be good. You can get away with imparting information in an expository way, and people will enjoy it. But when it's inserted into another format, it can be really frustrating!

This can be a good place to get a beta reader. Give them a version of your piece without an explanation of the information that might be too specialized. Have them tell you if they felt it was clear to follow and double check any passages where you might be concerned that they may not realize that they're not getting something. They might get everything, and then you'll know that you're on the right track. If they don't get everything, that's a good time to try to insert more information, or cut references to specialized information that aren't necessary to understanding the story.

It's hard to find the line between leaving your readers in the dark and lecturing them, but when you do, you'll be able to write successfully about specialized subjects.

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This was definitely relevant for me this week with the fandom post, because I wasn't sure what percentage of my audience would be familiar with fandom, or how familiar they would be. In the class I wrote about, many of the students would call themselves "fannish", but obviously had an understanding of fandom from a different perspective and at a different depth compared to myself, Eryn, and Stash.

I mentioned to one of my friends in the comments that I really struggled to find an analogy that would make non-fandom readers understand how I felt having a stranger ask me about my fandom activity. It was tempting to compare it to asking someone "So, what sort of pornography do you enjoy?" but I felt like that gave the impression that the source of reluctance to discuss fandom was purely sex-related shame when that's not it at all.

Especially when you're coming from deep in a subject, it's hard to step out and explain things adequately so that everyone understands it.

/talking about myself like a tool, wut

Yeah, I get what you mean, and with the porn reference: a lot of people already think that fandom is somehow equivalent to porn.

I guess it's sort of like if a man went up to the only woman in a room full of men and asked her what her favorite cosmetics were. Like, "I know this is a thing that women enjoy, let me ask you a question about it to show that I am interested in things having to do with women!" Or like you're a research subject. "Tell us about this thing you call fandom!"

Great advice. I'm afraid too many people fail to consider their audiences. I like that you drew the distinction between talking to your audience and talking down to them.

I think it's hard, because if you know you're talking about something they may not know, the usual response is to think you need to explain it, and not to trust the wonder that is the human brain to be able to fill in the blanks, which many people's brains can do. Sometimes, you do need to explain, and figuring out which times those are is tough!

One thing I see a lot of Idol entrants do is define the phrase that is the topic, and that always strikes me as a little silly since every other entrant has to write on the topic as well, and that means they probably looked it up if they didn't know what it meant already. It can be a little alienating and make it seem like the author suspects other Idol writers don't actually know what the topic means. It might be in there for their non-Idol friendslist, but I think there are better ways of handling it than assuming people don't know what the phrase means.

As far as defining a topic, follow the oft repeated writing rule, "Show, don't tell." :)

I don't even think you need to show in that case. Everyone participating should know what the topic means.

Oh this is SO relevant to me!

Hell, I've given up posts because I couldn't come up with a way to be scientifically interesting while still accessible to people who, let's say, don't have a degree in chemistry...

Great one as always.

I think you do a very good job of writing exposition that doesn't sound like you're talking down to people!

Heh, you haven't seen the ones I've scrapped!

This does highlight a personal bugbear of mine. A lot of Idolers assume that everyone is American. So they write about something with specifically American references and don't explain what it is they're talking about. A simple hyperlink would fix that. I don't want to have to google to understand an entry, but American pop culture isn't necessarily as accessible to someone outside as you might think. I've had people be a little snippy before when I've said that I didn't know who someone or something was and would like an explanation. This then leads on to spoilers. There've been quite a few spoilers over the course of my involvement with Idol that wouldn't have been for Americans who've already had a series but I'm quite behind on a lot of them, in some cases by more than one season, so being given a piece of information that's assumed to be common knowledge without any prior warning incredibly annoying.

... I've found a fair number of Americans assume everyone is American ^^


I didn't even think of the spoiler example! I guess I never really wrote about television last year so it didn't occur to me.

As for the other part, that's why I included examples like American football and grocery stores. People frequently talk about things that are local to their region with the same shorthand they would use to talk to another local person, without realizing that those things might not exist in the rest of the world or even the rest of their country. It's one thing if it's just a matter of Googling "Pathmark" or "Kroeger" but the same passage could be made so much more universal if the author substituted in "supermarket."

Last season I had TV series spoilt for me in the Green Room and in an entry. I also had a book spoilt for me in comments to an entry. The person doing the latter said "oh well, at least I didn't name names" but now that I've read the book in question, they really might as well have. It really, REALLY annoys me.

I also think that the ability to make your writing universal is another sign of a good writer. That's why you can sell the same piece of work multiple times - you rework it to fit different markets.

"The man in the blue hat totally kills the woman in the red dress at least I didn't name names!" like that?

I think some people are good judges of what can and can't be told ahead of time, and other people are just not very good at it. And then some people are just clueless that other people might have a forced time delay.

On the latter bit, yeah, totally. Some people are great at understanding what details are important, and what details actually might alienate parts of their audience. Justine Larbalestier, who writes a lot of YA fantasy, actually plays with this in her books. She lives part time in Australia and part time in the US, and she gently mocks both cultures for their expectations of what everyone knows or doesn't know. And universality can also help keep your story relevant in the future-- some stories are so bogged down by details that tie them to a specific time and place that they are practically alien to audiences trying to read or view them twenty years later.

That was exactly it. It was a story arc that had been built up over the course of a few books and they said that a particular event happened and gave enough information that even without names, I could make an educated guess as to who was involved (and I was right, too). Spoilt the entire book because I knew it was coming.

It's why I'm so careful when I write film reviews not to give away important details or if I really must, put it under a cut. It's just not fair to people who like to approach things fresh. And I do try to make my entries as universal as possible. Mind, I tend to write from the perspective that I was taught to, which is assume your reader knows nothing. You can explain background quite easily without boring your audience if you're careful with your words. Even when I'm writing esoteric articles, which tend to be for a more advanced audience, there's an assumption that people will understand basic terms like 'Gardnerian Wicca' but anything beyond that is explained, insofar as you can explain experience at any rate.

One person deliberately spoiled the end of the last season of Dexter in one of his first entries last year, just because he thought it was funny. I didn't read him again.

Thank the gods I missed that one. I did read an entry which gave away the casting for a series of Dexter which, although not a major spoiler, was enough that it took away the shock effect of who it was and what they were doing. I didn't vote for them on that basis, especially when they were "well, it wasn't that much of a secret." It was to me. And if they spoiled *that* ending? Unforgiveable. I'd be with you on that one.

Oh, god. I'm on Season Three right now, so I would be ridiculously pissed with that.

On the other side, trying to write in depth and without a lot of research can be super annoying to people with that specialized knowledge. Sometimes I feel like that with scenes about horses, and now law stuff.

While it's understandable that in a legal show you have to circumvent reality to tell a good story, sometimes, as a person who understands how long things actually take, its sort of annoying. Then again, if you tried to show the actual pace of a courtroom drama, it would be a lot of people staring at their online legal research program and muttering and sending snarky emails. Hardly Grisham stuff.

I think that's another issue entirely, because that's more of a "Write what you know" question and not a "understand what your audiences know" question, although it is important to know that if you're writing something you don't know well, there may be people who actually do know it well.

That is another thing that comes up a lot--and I think it does tie in to the not talking down to your audience bit. At least a litle.

I've seen a lot of fiction dealing with mental illness and substance abuse that rings extremely false for me, because it seems pretty obvious that the author doesn't have enough experience with it. But the annoyance is compounded when you can tell that they are trying to explain stuff to you that they don't even really understand themselves.

"If you are going to explain something to your audience, be damn sure you actually know what you're explaining."

I find it funny rather than annoying, to be honest. This notion that it's "good" writing to tackle something deep and meaningful you know nothing about rather than write from experience has come out with some absolute crackers. You can spot it a mile off.

I remember someone once claiming that if you did your research, a good writer could write about anything. Whilst they may be able to write coherent sentences, without the actual experience, you just don't know what you don't know. That comes through in spades.

Yeah, I sort of agree with you-- I tend to find it hilarious more than anger-inducing. But once in a while you have a person who acts like They Are The Font Of All Knowledge Pertaining To X (especially when you have people who have self-diagnosed a mood disorder off WebMD) and lecture other people about "their disease" that they clearly don't have. Those ones are frustrating because they're actually disseminating false information and pretending they're an expert source, and who knows how many people are going to take their word for it?

And I totally agree with your second paragraph. You can read every account of a drug addict ever and you will not understand what it is to be close to one until you are close to one.

GAH--This is long. Sorry!

This. All of this.

Nothing will turn me off faster than impenetrable content; if I've got to do too much work to get it, I'm not going to feel very generous to you when I finally do. If I have to slog through pedantic exposition for a weak payoff, I'm not going to feel very generous when I finally get there. If I need a PhD in Your Particular Interest/Hobby to understand...well you get the idea.

I love learning new things when I read, but--and this is the thing that matters to me--context, audience, and timing are everything. The rhetorical notion of kairos (the right words at the right moment in the right way) governs so much of my own approach to writing. The stuff that I post under friends lock? Not necessarily "kairotic" and often an eruption when I just need to say something and get it out there. Public posts (like my Idol ones)? When I shape them, I think about lots of things--what I understand of the audience/readership so far, the prompt, the number of entries left in the game, the tribe I think I'm going to be in, the time of year--so that I can tell the story that I'm thinking about telling in a way that it can be heard by those who are mostly likely to read it.

I write a lot of personal entries about real things that are happening in my real life. Sometimes those entries have led me to discuss uncommon bits of information (I'm thinking about that brown paper bag entry from last season, for example). My job as a writer is to help a reader understand that thing in the amount of space/time they're willing to grant me. The more complicated/obscure/strange the reference, the more I'd better be certain that it's necessary to the plot. If I don't take the time to think about that, then I feel like I'm wasting the time of my readers, and that's something you never want to do.

I wonder sometimes if we aren't expecting people to do their own research because it's right there. When I read posts, I'm reading from a web browser with a search engine bar in the upper right hand corner; if I don't understand something, I can open a new tab, pop in a search term, and learn. That's great for some things, but not so great for others. In Idol posts, every click away from the page pulls my brain out of the story being told, so I want to minimize that attention leak for my readers.

tl;dr: If you really want to be heard, speak to the people who are listening, not the ones you might prefer were.

Edited at 2010-12-13 03:05 pm (UTC)

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