Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.
Writing Right with Dmitri: Know Your Audience
Is anybody there? Does anybody care? – John Adams in 1776
All writers feel like John Adams, sometimes. Obnoxious, disliked, and above all...ignored.
Aside from the bruised ego, wondering about who's out there is a specific problem faced by the writer who is writing from personal conviction or out of personal inspiration. If you're writing for hire, somebody will tell you who you're writing for. It makes a difference. If you're writing for teenagers, you need a different vocabulary from the one you use for seniors. You need to assume different cultural baggage, too. A joke about Britney Spears is likely to fall flat with the over-70 crowd.
Whether you're writing fact or fiction, keeping your potential audience in mind is important. If your ideal audience is yourself – keep the material in a file on your computer and open it when you get bored. Forget all that blather about the 'right reader'. If your purpose is to communicate, keep these points in mind:
- Different age groups have different life experiences. If you're describing a 'mid-life crisis', make the process plain to a reader who hasn't been there yet. (Don't be patronising, but keep it in mind.)
- No matter what your English teacher told you, not everyone talks the way you do. Make sure your locutions are explicable in context1.
- In this age of global communication, your writing can reach around the world. Ask yourself 'What would someone find new/different/odd/surprising about the way we do things in our corner of the planet?' Assuming the normativity of your backyard is not only the height of arrogance, it will make readers stop reading (and with good reason).
- Don't assume so much cultural baggage. Unless you write for fanzines, expecting the reader to have memorised the dialogue to your favourite film is merely another form of inexcusable provincialism. This writer runs into the problem constantly, having the 100% certainty of sharing almost no cultural baggage with readers who have not immigrated from Alpha Centauri or do not have a large collection of tinfoil hats. (Moral: If you're an alien and/or insane, you have to work harder.)
It's not necessary to pander to your reader's prejudices. Just be aware of what you need to make clearer. (And remember to 'show, not tell'.) The reward is that you get to let someone else in on what you've seen and heard. Yes, of course we're talking about fiction – but even if you've made the place up, it's really somewhere in your memory. Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County was really his home in Mississippi. Acme, North Carolina, is a composite of several local hamlets. Douglas Adams' galaxy is terribly British, while Gene Roddenberry's is equally American – and Eastern European science fiction of the past celebrates the Warsaw Pact in outer space (often quite entertainingly).
How will you know if you're succeeding? If the feedback you get concentrates on the choices the characters made, or the atmosphere, or the thrill of the plot device, rather than on the confusion engendered by the setting, you must be getting there. 'I hate that character, he's a jerk,' is fine. 'I don't understand why he looked right first when he crossed the road,' isn't. (Did you forget to mention where he lived? Did you assume that everyone who matters drives on the left2?)
Journalist, novelist, and Confederate deserter Samuel Langhorne Clemens – aka Mark Twain – was a world traveller. In 1869, when he had already journeyed as far as the gold fields of the American West and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), he was paid by a newspaper to become an early package-tour blogger. The weekly columns describing the Mediterranean voyage of the Quaker City, a ship full of middle-class tourists bound for the 'Holy Land', became Twain's bestseller, Innocents Abroad. (Yes, you're saying, but this is not fiction. Bah. Is it not? Have you ever read Mark Twain? Would you hire this man as a fact-checker?)
One reason Twain knew his readers well was that he frequently met them in person. No, not on book tours. Twain was a professional lecturer, a sort of literary stand-up comic. After the publication of Innocents Abroad, he went around giving a lecture called 'The American Vandal Abroad'. This lecture showed how well he knew his audience.
A word of explanation for us modern folk: Twain capitalised the word 'Vandal'. In his day, the word was still being used to describe a tribe of barbarians. But it was also being used to describe the new breed of American tourist – with good reason. The new wave of tourism represented by the Quaker City lot consisted of prosperous, but self-made, people with little or no understanding of other cultures. They spoke nothing but their own brand of English. They charged around Europe being loud. Worst of all, they...er, vandalised ancient monuments. They left graffiti on the Colosseum. They chipped pieces off the Great Pyramid3. They were, not to put to fine a point on it, Vandals.
Twain knew his audience knew this. He made mock. He related the story – no doubt somewhat embellished – of how he and his fellow yahoos aboard the Quaker City violated a quarantine order and sneaked into Athens by moonlight, stealing grapes along the way to the Parthenon. The audience obviously found this sort of thing amusing4. Twain concluded:
If there is a moral to this lecture it is an injunction to all Vandals to travel. I am glad the American Vandal goes abroad. It does him good. It makes a better man of him...Contact with men of various nations and many creeds teaches him that there are other people in the world besides his own little clique, and other opinions as worthy of attention and respect as his own. He finds that he and his are not the most momentous matters in the universe. Cast into trouble and misfortune in strange lands and being mercifully cared for by those he never saw before, he begins to learn that best lesson of all – that one which culminates in the conviction that God puts something good and something lovable in every man his hands create – that the world is not a cold, harsh, cruel, prison-house, stocked with all manner of selfishness and hate and wickedness...So I say, by all means let the American Vandal go on traveling, and let no man discourage him.—Mark Twain, The American Vandal Abroad
See how sneaky Twain is? He knows his audience. He makes them laugh by talking about those 'foreign' places and the boorish but amusing things he and his friends did. Then he hits them with what he wants to say – grow up, wake up and smell the coffee, you aren't the centre of the universe, you people.
Heh-heh. Go and do likewise.