Thursday, July 26, 2012

Don’t write like a jerk

In many posts, I have discussed various ways in which we forget our manners and thereby confuse and irritate our readers. See examples here and here. These are examples of thoughtlessness; every one of us has been thoughtless occasionally.

But there are at least two more levels of bad manners beyond thoughtlessness: showing disrespect for readers and showing hostility to readers. In other words, writing like a jerk.*

Here is an exquisite example of writing like a jerk. It is a paragraph from the article “The Physics of Toilets” by Esther Inglis-Arkell.

A siphon works because it allows water to move like a chain instead of like discrete particles. Grab a pitcher and fill it with water. Stick a length of flexible tube deep in the water and let the tube droop down over the side of the pitcher. Then suck one [sic] the end of the tube until the water comes up over the edge of the pitcher and down the tube a ways. The water in the tube will splash on the floor. (Oops. Did I not tell you to put a container there to catch the water? My bad.) But the water in the length of tube climbing up the side of the pitcher will not fall back down into the pitcher. It’ll keep going, drawing more and more water over the side until the pitcher empties onto the floor. (Really my bad. I mean. Did I have to tell you a whole pitcher? Couldn’t I have just said a glass?) The water will be drawn over the side the same way a length of beads will be drawn over the side of a container if the beginning of the strand is pulled over the side.


The writer describes an educational demonstration that the reader can set up in his own kitchen. Then, in an unmistakable tone of passive-aggressive hostility (“Oops. Did I not tell you…”), the writer reveals that she has played a practical joke by omitting to describe a step.

Then she taunts the reader by saying “My bad,” a flippant, insincere form of apology that is currently popular among the indolent. Using this form of apology after a deliberate offense is clearly hostile.

The writer’s hostility apparently still not sated, she taunts the reader again, by suggesting that she could have made the practical joke less damaging but did not (“Did I have to tell you a whole pitcher?”).

True, the typical reader probably will not even try to set up the demonstration. Or if he does try, he will probably read past the end of the instructions and see the text that reveals the joke. Or he may not read that far but will start setting up the demonstration and recognize that he needs to put a container on the floor to catch the water. But none of these possibilities removes the hostility from the words as written.

And many astute readers will think, “Well, she did reveal her gratuitous and stupid practical joke right after she set it up, but I wonder if she has buried another practical joke elsewhere in this ostensibly practical article and has not revealed it. She sounds like the kind of person who would do that. I should stop reading this article and look for an article by someone else.”

The Takeaway: Don’t write like a jerk. Don’t show hostility to your reader. Don’t even show disrespect for your reader. Once your reader concludes you are a jerk, he will, unless he is a masochist, stop reading and never knowingly read you again. At that point, the effective clarity of your writing drops to zero.

See disclaimer.

*The word jerk is slang for “a foolish, rude, or contemptible person.”

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