Tuesday, April 03, 2012

How to know when you're talking down to your readers, and what to do about it

"Don't talk down to your audience."

I've seen this advice in many, many books about writing fiction, but I haven't been able to find much about how to diagnose when you're doing it, or how to stop.

The issue came up in my writer's group. I suggested that a manuscript was "talking down" to the reader, and the rest of the room agreed, but we couldn't quite define the qualities that gave us that impression. And the writer understandably wanted to know what she was doing wrong.

There are a few reasons why a writer might unconsciously talk down to her audience:

People in certain professions––teachers, lawyers, police, art critics, doctors––become accustomed to delivering the unimpeachable Truth to a powerless audience and this assumption of authority carries over into their writing.

Of course, some writers really do see themselves as messiah-types, out to enlighten the world with their prose, but that writer is likely to search out an article like this.

But most often, the writer may be unsure about her subject matter or unsure how to deliver it. She may know a bit about her topic, but not enough to feel secure about writing it, so she over-compensates by lecturing the reader on every tiny detail of what she does know.

Some symptoms of "talking down" to your audience:

1. Hand-holding. Over-explaining things to the reader. The writer assumes that the reader has never before encountered anything like a genetically-engineered service dog, or intracranial wetware to translate interspecies speech. The mere fact that I had words to write that sentence indicates that we've seen it all before, fictionally speaking. 

2. Lecturing tone. Halting the plot's forward movement to explain something--as if the narrator of a play has stopped the action to fill in the audience. In sci-fi writing this is called "infodumping." Research should be worked in organically, filtered through the POV character's thoughts and senses, and in the same voice as the rest of the narrative. This is where show-don't-tell comes into play: don't just tell us about the gadget, show us the unfamiliar object at work. (Famous example in a Heinlein book: "The door dilated.")

3. Assumption of intellectual, moral, or ethical superiority. This form of down-talking dominates Internet comment threads, where people tend to assume that everyone else is an idiot for not subscribing to their religion/diet/politics/computing platform, and further assume that these idiots would be enlightened if the superior party could just explain things clearly enough. The superior party's argument is usually opened or closed with an admonition to "Think, people!" 
  There are several pitfalls in these assumptions.
  First, the lecturer does not have a monopoly on information. The audience may be fully as well informed as the lecturer, if not more so. 
  Second, it is possible to logically arrive at more than one conclusion from the same basic information. This is the parable of the blind men and the elephant. 
  Third, in classic argument structure there is a concept called "warrants"--the underlying "truths" which are taken for granted by both writer and audience. For instance, "All women love babies," or, "All men like sports." When a writer assumes his truths are the "right" ones––or the only ones––he runs the risk of insulting or alienating his audience. 

4. Playing coy, or fighting paper-tigers--In fiction, the author may allude to bad things happening, but they happen off-stage in a way that robs the story of emotional impact. Or ignores negative consequences that would happen in real life (like all those female action heroes who would be raped and beaten to a pulp in real life). Or creates "reconciliation" plots in which the bad guy repents after a good talking-to. Or builds a plot around a conflict that could and should be resolved by a good talking-to. This kind of plot is ok for preschoolers. Everyone else has real problems.

Granted, writing well is a balancing act, so what seems like over-explaining to one reader may seem just enough to another. But suppose the majority of your beta readers call foul on your story? What do you do?

1.  Do your research. Learn your subject matter inside and out, before you start to write. Often I have seen writers waste word-count explaining the research to themselves, feeling their way through the world or the tech they have created. While this can a useful pre-writing exercise, it should be cut before those pages go to your beta readers. When people are truly knowledgeable about a subject they tend to under-explain, because they forget what it's like to not-have that knowledge. To achieve a good balance of technical explanation, read lots of other fiction in your genre, both to know what's been done, and to internalize the rhythm of information insertion. Your audience will have read everything else in your genre, and they will catch it if you screw up.

2. Consider your audience. It's fine to start writing a piece for your own amusement, but by the time you expect anyone else to read it, you should have given serious thought to your intended audience. Failure to focus on an ideal reader may lead to inconsistencies in tone and subject matter, and then the story won't appeal to anyone. I found an excellent article about determining audience here.

3. Consider your level of language. This is the logical intersection of knowing your audience and your research: consider complexity of vocabulary as well as jargon. Specialized language is one of the fun parts of writing genre fiction––whether it's a historical novel, a police procedural or a space-travel epic; a skillful user of language can convey a great deal concisely by choosing the appropriate bit of jargon. When discussing a college-level subject, use college-level vocabulary and sentence construction throughout. 

4. Allow for your audience's warrants. Obviously not all your readers will come from your cultural and ethical background, but that's not really important when you are writing fiction. More important are the disparities between your character's warrants, and those of your audience. Establish your character's world view and then justify her behavior sufficiently to make your reader believe that such a character would act that way. In fiction, try not to let your own warrants to get in the way of the characters––unless of course you are writing an Ayn Rand-type treatise. (Keeping in mind the audience for such a work will be somewhat limited.)
a.  Refrain from assuming the moral or ethical high ground. Positioning yourself as on the side of the moral right/moral majority is immediately alienating, and you want to be welcoming and inclusive to as many readers as possible.
b. Avoid big sweeping generalizations. A line from Ender's Game comes to mind, something about, how girls weren't usually chosen for the war games because they were too submissive and gentle, "thousands of years of evolution working against them," or something like that. Although the line was stated by a single character, in context it was a Truth of the book. Ten years ago when I read it, I winced. These days I would probably put the book down and read no further. I certainly haven't read anything else by Card.
c.  Avoid "you should/we must/one ought" and other imperative value statements. This applies more to nonfiction writing, but fiction writers can also fall into the trap of telling their audience what to think. We've all read some of the moralizing fiction of the 19th century; Black Beauty and Little Women were full of proselytizing passages.
d. Don't state opinion as fact. Classic logical fallacy. 

The act of writing is inherently arrogant; first we imagine we have something to say, then we come to believe that, having said it, we know more about the subject than anyone else could.  Perhaps the best way to avoid talking down to your readers is to imagine that reader is a respected colleague--someone you don't have to explain things to.

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