Sunday, July 26, 2009

When a reader says your writing is not clear

In an earlier post, I quoted a long passage from “Good Writing,” a 2,400-word essay written by Marc H. Raibert. The passage described a procedure that writers can follow to “get unstuck.” I am going to quote one more passage from the essay, this one on a different topic.

[Beginning of quotation]

Trust Your Readers

When you get comments back from your readers, trust what they tell you. If they get confused at a particular point, don’t argue with them explaining why what you wrote really is clear. Rewrite that part to overcome whatever confused your reader. You’ll be surprised to find that more than one reader will get stuck in the very same place in your paper, even though what you wrote was perfectly clear, and they just confused themselves. When a reader marks a word or sentence in your paper, they are telling you that something is wrong here. It is not necessary that you take the specific advice that a reader gives. Their suggested correction may be good, or you might generate a better one.

[End of quotation]

That is reliable, solid, career-building advice. From my experience as an editor working with more than 400 writers, I can say with confidence that there are three facts about writers and how they react to readers:

1. Most writers are humble. They have empathy. They do what Mr. Raibert says to do: rewrite.

2. Some writers are arrogant. They do what Mr. Raibert says not to do: argue.

3. With few exceptions, arrogant writers eventually fail at writing.

Arrogant writers fail because they keep rejecting reader feedback and therefore never improve their ability to write clearly.

Humble writers prosper because they keep accepting reader feedback and therefore are constantly improving their ability to write clearly.

The Takeaway: Try to be humble, not arrogant. If you can’t do it – if you are arrogant by temperament – you would be wise to look for a different line of work.

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