Writing Right with Dmitri: Talking to, or Talking at?
Not too many weeks ago, we had a holiday season. Now, holiday seasons are fun: lots of special events, visits to friends and family, and general jollity. That's the upside, I think you'll agree. The downside is that this particular holiday season takes place in what for at least half of us on this planet is the dead of winter, when our biorhythms are off, and we tend to feel grumpy. That's why we invented the holiday in the first place, to cheer ourselves up. But we forget this and get all tetchy, anyway, when the hot cocoa isn't exactly the right temperature or we got the wrong action figure in our stocking. (I wanted MALIBU Barbie!) In that case, we often go around being snappish at people. Our nearest and dearest may sigh and put up with us, but strangers may fail to be so forgiving. Hence the proliferation of nastiness on web fora – and, I suspect, the exhaustion of moderators everywhere. ('No, you can't call him a peckerwood. This website originates from the Appalachians, and we know what that means!')
'Now,' you say to me, 'That's all true. But what does it have to do with me and my writing? I'm an author, not an internet troll. Nobody solicits (or pays) internet trolls. What I put on the page is serious business!'
Yes, my friend, it is. But it struck me, reading internet fussing, that we writers could learn a trick or two from the trolls' failure to communicate.
When you read something like this, you know where it is heading:
English. Do. You. Speak. It.?
That quip was taken from a real website, and no, in case you're asking, it was not the one you're reading now, because we don't act like that, ever. You see the problem immediately, though. Whoever wrote that is addressing the other poster – but wait! That 'question' isn't going to elicit a response that leads to dialogue. You can't even get a decent argument going with a smart-aleck post like that. And the poster, surely, knows this.
One assumes that the poster is aiming his 'clever' remark at the others in the forum. He's saying, in effect, 'See? I know why this poster is wrong, and I'm on your side. Let's gang up on the ignorant poster and drive him away. Then we can have a real discussion among ourselves.' (By the way, in this case, it hasn't worked yet.)
Now, that's not what you want to do as a writer.
Why not? Because you're addressing a reader. You don't want to chase that reader away. You need to engage the reader. And to do that, you need the reader on your side. You can no more expect a reader to stick around if you just harangue them than you can expect that internet message board to turn into a solid discussion.
Queen Victoria, it is said, found Gladstone tedious. 'He always addresses me as if I were a public meeting,' Her Majesty complained. Well, duh, as the kids say. No doubt Gladstone was nervous in the august presence of the embodiment of Empire, but that's no excuse for boring the poor lady to death. Liven it up, please. And talk to her, even if you have to use honorifics.
Why am I always harping on at people about using 'hooks' – tantalising titbits to start off their articles and stories? Because, dear writer friends, in addition to being a form of teaser trailer, the hook shows respect for your reader. It says, in effect, 'I know your time is valuable. I wouldn't be bothering you if I didn't have something to say. I want to show you why this might be important to you, too.'
See? That works. You're talking to people, not talking at people. That's what internet trolls forget. That's what the person who wrote that 'Do you speak English?' wisecrack forgot. Dialogue begins with direct address. It also shows respect. Everybody deserves that, even in the middle of the winter when you're feeling grumpy.
Besides, you remember that old saying, don't you? You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.
Sweeten it up, fellow writers.