Five sim­ple ways to en­gage and con­vince your reader

The Guardian - Review - - Review -

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

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