Five simple ways to engage and convince your reader
1 Bait the hook
Call it audience awareness, call it decorum, call it reader relations if you like, but the key principle of all persuasive writing is customer service. I’m fond of a quote – variously attributed – that says: “When you go fishing, you bait the hook with what the fish likes, not with what you like.” An obvious principle, easily lost sight of.
Putting yourself in the audience’s shoes governs everything from the shape of your argument to the choice of vocabulary. Ask what they do and don’t know about the subject, and what they need to; not what you know about it. Ask what they are likely to find funny, rather than what you do. What are the shared references that will bring them on board? Where do you need to pitch your language? How much attention are they likely to be paying?
This is what Aristotle, talking about rhetoric, called ethos, or the question of how your audience sees you. And the best way for them to see you is either as one of them, or someone on their side. As the speech theorist Kenneth Burke wrote – another line I never tire of quoting – “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, identifying your ways with his.”
2 Be clear
A lot of style guides, with good reason, tell their readers to write Plain English. There’s even a Plain English Campaign that does its nut, year-round and vocationally, about examples of baffling officialese, pompous lawyer-speak and soul-shrivelling business jargon.
Plain English (the simplest word that does the job; straightforward sentences; nice active verbs etc) is far from the only style you should have at your command. But if you depart from it, you should have a reason, be it aesthetic or professional. The plainer the language, the easier the reader finds it; and the easier the reader finds it, the more likely they’ll take in what you’re saying and continue reading. Surveys of the average reading age of British adults routinely put it between nine and 13. Trim your style accordingly.
Steven Pinker talks about “classic style” (he borrows the notion from the literary critics Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner). This, as he sees it, is a variation on Plain English that compli- ments the reader’s intelligence and talks to him or her as an equal. He gives a cute example. “The early bird gets the worm” is plain style, he says. “The second mouse gets the cheese” is classic. I half-buy the distinction; though much of what Pinker credits to the classic style is exactly what’s asked of any good instance of the plain. And the examples he offers convey quite different thoughts, and (a bit unfairly) attribute a cliche to the plain style and a good joke to the classic.
But whatever you call it, the basic style for non-literary writing wants to put clarity, which usually means simplicity, first. That doesn’t preclude jokes, metaphor or any sort of playfulness: it just warns that splashes of colour stand out better on a plain background.
3 Be correct
Entire books are written on this subject every year: this least interesting aspect of language occupies a disproportionate place in the public conversation about it. Are you a pettifogging pedant who thinks that the widespread use of the word “decimate” to mean “annihilate”, or “gay” to mean “homosexual”, is a sign of the barbarism and illiteracy of today’s youth? Do you go out of your way to avoid splitting infinitives, make gargling noises in the “10 items or less” queue, and have strong feelings about the word “whom”? Take a jersey: you’re team prescriptivist. Do you scoff at pedantry, love to use new coinages and loan-words, begin sentences with conjunctions just for the hell of it and think Eats, Shoots & Leaves was a book for the small-minded and ignorant? That end, please: you’re team descriptivist.
The so-called “language wars” give all those involved in them a thrill of opposition, and have done since Caxton was moaning circa 1478 that English isn’t what it used to be. Most of us, as civilians, carry on regardless. I say only this: the descriptivists are, in essence, right. Language changes according to usage and there’s no referee or court of appeal, no matter how noisily some people may volunteer for those jobs. Whatever pedants say, some nonstandard usages will increase not only
Surveys of the average reading age of British adults put it between nine and 13. Trim your style accordingly
the expressive range of the language and its precision (Belfast “youse” or Louisiana “y’all” introduce a number distinction not present in standard English, for instance), but often its beauty.
But a feature of what we please to call standard written English is that many of its users place a premium on “correctness”, or the idea of it. Hence, on the baiting-the-hook principle, getting it right – or, if you prefer, “right” – is worth doing. You may frame it as a stylistic preference, as a way of showing off a conventional education and implying intellectual authority, or simply as throwing a bone to the pedants in the audience. But if you’re writing in a formal situation you’d be best to err on the side of not erring.
4 Prefer right-branching sentences
Your audience has a limited attention span and limited brain power. So don’t write, if you can help it, sentences of the sort that caused Clover Adams to say of Henry James that he chewed more than he could bite off. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should write only short sentences. It’s more to do with sentence structure. A preference for what American linguists call “right-branching” sentences eases the cognitive load.
Standard-issue sentences, in English, have subject-verb-object order: dog (subject) bites (verb) man (object). There are any number of elaborations on this, but the spine of your sentence, no matter how many limbs it grows, consists of those three things. (Or two if your verb, like “sleep” or “disappear”, doesn’t take an object.) Don’t lose sight of it.
If you have a huge series of modifying clauses before you reach the subject of the sentence, the reader’s brain is working harder; likewise, if you have a vast parenthesis between subject and verb or even verb and object. The reader’s brain has registered the subject (dog) and it is waiting for a verb so it can make sense of the sentence. Meanwhile, you’re distracting it by cramming ever more material into its working memory. “My dog, which I got last week because I’ve always wanted a dog and I heard from Fred – you know, Fred who works in the chip shop and had that injury last year three days after coming home from his holidays – that he was getting rid of his because his hours had changed and he couldn’t walk it as much as it wanted (very thoughtful, is Fred), bit me ...”
As often, TS Eliot shows us how not to do it: “In the uncertain hour before the morning/ Near the ending of interminable night/ At the recurrent end of the unending/ After the dark dove with the flickering tongue/ Had passed below the horizon of his homing/ While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin/ Over the asphalt where no other sound was/ Between three districts whence the smoke arose ...”
“Whence the smoke arose WHAT, already?” the reader wants to shout in his best Larry David voice. This sentence (it continues: “I met ...”) is a whole lot of gong and no dinner. Beautiful it may be – but it’s hard work on the reader. If you’re not writing “Little Gidding”, do it the other way.
5 Read it aloud
It is almost impossibly hard to write, formally, about cadence – the term usually given to the rhythms of prose. When you’re writing about poetry (or, at least, formal verse) you can point to a line and identify it as an iambic pentameter, a trochaic tetrameter or a catalectic hexameter in amphibrachs, as the case may be. But prose rhythm doesn’t work like that: it’s irregular. Nevertheless, it’s also extremely important.
The formally learned skills of reading and writing come from the infor- mally learned skills of speaking and hearing. Such neuroscientific work as has been done on language shows that when we read, we’re activating areas of the brain associated with sound. You “hear” even when you’re reading silently. The reader has an internal ear: so must the writer. Read a lot and write a lot and your ear will improve.
Most of what gets described as “good writing” is so described because – one way or another – it sounds right. It flows when it should flow and slows when it should slow. The stresses fall naturally on the words that the writer wants to emphasise. The reader doesn’t stumble over an unintended internal rhyme or a clumsy repetition. Reading something aloud is a good way of stresstesting it: you’ll notice the rhythm more. Also, you’ll notice very abruptly if your sentences are tangled up: that overfilling-the-working-memory thing can be heard in your voice. The American speechwriter Peggy Noonan advises that once you have a draft, “Stand up and speak it aloud. Where you falter, alter.”
The spine of your sentence should be subject, verb, object: dog bites man. Don’t lose sight of this