Writing Right with Dmitri: Do They Know That?
A word to the wise about writing for the internet: don't niche-market yourself out of a readership. In a recent Guide Entry, Bluebottle was complaining about this very thing, and he was right to do so.
Other examples include Jennifer Lopez's 'Jenny from the Block' (2002). The words of the chorus are:
Don't be fooled by the rocks that I got
I'm still I'm still Jenny from the block'.
My first reaction to this was to think, 'Jennifer Lopez sings? I didn't know that.' I've mostly seen her touted as an actress, not that I remember seeing anything she was in (or wanting to). When I look her up on Google, I find this:
J-Lo Looks Cozy on Set in Ugg Slippers & a Fluffy Bathrobe
Now I know that this rich woman buys $120 bedroom slippers from Nordstrom, when she could get the exact same thing for $19.99 at Walmart.
Now, Bluebottle was complaining about 'Jenny from the block' not making sense to him. That's because he's from a country that uses the expression 'block of flats' to mean 'high-rise apartment building.' Of course, an urban citizen of New York City or Chicago or Philadelphia or Boston would probably understand 'Jenny from the block' to mean 'Jenny, the girl we used to play stickball with/fight with/have secret crushes on, who lived on our block, meaning our section of an enormous street that goes on for miles and miles.'
Oh, and the 'rocks' are jewellery, which she spells 'jewelry' if she's got a good spell- checker (although at that salary, she probably has people for that), and the idea is that Jenny is basically the same person in spite of the change in her socio-economic status. Meaning, she'll still scratch your eyes out if you mess with her bf.
With all the social changes these days, it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place for five minutes at a time.
So what's the take-home, dudes and dudettes? Simple: don't assume everybody knows what you know.
In September, if I remember Sasha's statistics correctly, only 27% of our readers logged in from the UK. 35% from the US. The rest, children, were from everywhere else on the planet. (We hope from orbit, but we don't know for sure.) What does this mean? Not everybody who reads this stuff agrees on the meaning of expressions like 'home run'. Or likes the 'Goon Show'. Or has even heard of the 'Goon Show'. Or Jack Benny, whatever.
'Oh, no,' you wail. 'But that's the kind of thing I love to talk about!' Don't panic. You can still talk about these things. But you need to explain them. That's easy, right? Just remember that nobody else knows what you're talking about. I didn't know it was called 'The Wirral'. Neither did the BBC, from what I read on Twitter the other week. Graciously consent to explain.
Be sure to make your explanation:
- Clear to an outsider.
- Interesting to read.
Don't forget the interesting part. If you sound like you're bullying the reader, they will go away. Readers have more control over these things than you think.
One of the reasons writers forget to explain things isn't that they don't know other people don't know this. It's that they're used to talking to people who are 'local' – i.e., share their geographic, perceptual, philosophical, or experiential affinity group. Within those groups, certain terms and concepts are taken for granted. In fact, knowledge of these terms is often traded around as a kind of shibboleth, or sign of belonging. Outsiders don't know, insiders do.
If you want people to read your writing, you've got to give up that exclusivity. You have to want to make the reader an insider, too.
If you don't – if you only want to talk to fellow fanatics and aficionados – don't write for h2g2. You'll never be preaching to the choir here, not even if you start waffling on about The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. There are people in good standing on this site who've never read the books, seen the films, or listened to the radio shows. There are even people here who, gasp, don't like science fiction. And you know what? We don't care! That's how awesomely radical we are.
We pay for this eclecticism, however. I will be guaranteed to use words nobody has heard of. Everybody will either ignore this or look them up. We look up stuff all the time. But I should try to keep my language in this century. And we should all try to remember that our main job is as site interpreters for Planet Earth. Let's share with enthusiasm, erudition, and maximum accessibility.