The Literary Assassin

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How to Know When You're Talking Down to Your Readers, and What to do About It

by Holly Messinger

©2012 Free for private use.
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"Don't talk down to your audience."

This is a common piece of advice in how-to-write-fiction manuals, but it isn’t always easy to know when you’re doing it, or how to stop.

There are a few preconditions that might lead a writer to talk down to her audience. Certain professionals—teachers, lawyers, police, art critics, doctors—are in the business of delivering Unimpeachable Truth to a passive audience, and this assumption of authority can carry over into their writing. On the other hand some writers deliberately set out to enlighten the world with their prose; however that type is unlikely to read an article like this.

For a fiction writer, the problem usually stems from either arrogance or insecurity. Either she knows everything about her subject and assumes her readers are green clay in need of moulding; or, she knows too little about her subject to write confidently, and so over-compensates by lecturing the reader on every tiny detail in her possession, much like a grade-schooler copying his essay from the encyclopedia.

Some symptoms of "talking down" to your audience:

  1. Hand-holding. Over-explaining things. 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 words exist to write that sentence indicates it’s all been done before, fictionally speaking.
  2. Lecturing digressions. 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. 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 the infamous show-don't-tell rule comes into play: don't just tell about the gadget, show the unfamiliar object at work. (Famous example in a Heinlein book: "The door dilated.")
  3. Assumption of intellectual, logical, or ethical superiority. This form of down-talking dominates Internet forums, where writers tend to assume everyone else is an idiot, and further assume the idiots would be enlightened if the superior party could just explain things clearly enough. The superior party's argument is usually closed with an admonition to "Think, people!" There are several fallacies in such assumptions.
  4. Playing coy, or fighting paper-tigers. The author alludes to bad things happening, but they happen off-stage and so rob the story of emotional impact. Or she ignores negative consequences that would happen in real life to avoid anything bad happening to her character. Or she creates "reconciliation" plots in which the bad guy repents after a good talking-to. This kind of plot is ok for preschoolers. Everyone else has real problems.

Some tactics to remedy the situation:

  1. Do your research. Learn your subject matter inside and out, before you start to write. Often writers waste word-count explaining the research to themselves, feeling their way through the world they have created. While this can a useful pre-writing exercise, it should be cut before those pages go to an audience. When people are truly knowledgeable about a subject they tend to under-explain, because they forget what it's like not to know the basics.
  2. Choose an ideal audience. It's fine to start writing a piece for your own amusement, but for the end product, focus on your intended audience. Failure to do so may lead to inconsistencies in tone and subject matter.
  3. Consider your level of language. Consider complexity of vocabulary as well as jargon. Specialized language is one of the fun parts of 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 in a word or two of jargon. When writing for a mainstream American market, use college-level vocabulary and sentence construction throughout.
  4. Allow for your audience's warrants. Set aside your own beliefs for the time being; focus on the potential disparities between your character's beliefs, 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.

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. Perhaps the best way to avoid talking down to your readers is to imagine the reader as a respected colleague—someone you don't have to explain things to.

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