Writing for the reader is key

21 Sep

Being that I work in the web, I’m constantly hearing about and facilitating discussions around user-interaction design.  My good pal Jason and I got into a chat yesterday about the science behind that — the true psychology and sociology of why people make decisions, and how the web experience can be designed to encourage those decisions.

When it comes to writing, I wish there was a similar science I could fall back upon.  Recently, I’ve been trying to earn some money by jumping into the world of technical writing.  It’s lucrative, but it’s dry.  It’s the arena of government contracts and specifications and manuals and contracts… and I’ve remembered now what it’s like to edit the “expert.”

When I was in grad school, I’d help out friends by editing their papers or dissertations and suggesting better ways to write their cover letters.  Most of the time, people would take my recommendations as they were intended — RECOMMENDATIONS — and go with them, assuming I wasn’t misinterpreting the meaning or changing the context drastically.  Every once in a while — and even within the last year — I’d run across someone who asked for my help but then took great offense to my edits.

I think Bernard Shaw once said something to the effect of — a writer who doesn’t value his editor will never grow.  I might have made that up.  I’ll check with Google.  But the point is, someone told me that once, and I believe it.  I’m constantly asking for feedback, but I haven’t always been good at receiving it.  At the point I realized someone else’s ideas could make my arrogant self more skilled, I dropped my pride and started learning.  And that’s when I became a more INTUITIVE writer.

So, I recently wrapped editing and formatting a 99-page document.  When I passed it back for review, I was told it was “incredibly thorough” and “the best work I’ve seen from any of our freelancers.”  Phew!  Except, when my contact filtered it back to the original writer, the buck stopped.  The final request: Please keep all of the formatting, but paste in all of the original content without any edits.

It pained me greatly to have inconsistencies, grammatical errors, and just plain overly confusing and redundant technical jargon jammed back into an otherwise clean document, but I had no choice — the writer no longer saw himself in the writing.  He’d written it for himself rather than for the reader.  He didn’t care that there were errors — they were HIS errors and he’d be damned if some strange freelancer was going to swoop in and make it readable the way he didn’t intend.

Sometimes, I have to let go.  But, man, it’d be great if I could say, “My edits were based on user-experience testing — the psychology behind how people want to READ your writing.”

Then again, it probably wouldn’t have mattered in this case.  But, I can always hope!


One Response to “Writing for the reader is key”


  1. Writing for the reader - September 24, 2008

    […] That sounds like something elementary, but I’m always surprised at the number of writers (or people who call themselves writers) who seem to forget this. I was reminded of how bad this situation can be when reading this blog post. […]

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