Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Writing from a readers perspective

A few weeks ago I took the Gopen writing course. It was an intensive course in expository writing from a readers’ perspective. The course ran two consecutive Saturdays from 7:30am to 5pm. For me it was mandatory.

I have to admit, when I received the email from my boss insisting that I register for the course, I was a bit miffed. Wasn’t he the one who told me I was a good writer? Am I not a published author? Of course he didn’t know that, but I still complained to a few of my co-workers that I didn’t need the course. And I felt justified in not wanting to attend. That was two Saturdays that I had to spend away from my kids. And I had to drive on the highway to get there (I am terrified of highways).

Well I did take the course, reluctantly deciding I was going to ditch it the following week. Was I in for a surprise! Not only was it interesting and entertaining but it was indeed helpful and necessary for my development as a writer.

The instructor, Dr George Gopen from Duke University gave us one rule to writing from a readers’ perspective: there is no rule. That immediately got my attention. He went on to discuss about the importance of context and sentence structure that would make it clear to the reader. One thing he said that really made an impact on me was, “No matter how good a writer you are, if your reader cannot understand you, you have not done the job.”

So true! How many times have I read scientific papers three and four times and still could not understand what they were saying? I just thought I was dumb. But Dr. Gopen is right. When we write, the reader should not have to use up all his/her energy in understanding what we are communicating. We did some exercises that really drove home the point. They involved rearranging sentence structure to make it much clearer for the reader.

When I went home I re-examined some of my scientific writing and I was appalled. I had fallen into the trap of so many scientists writing long sentences with a million and one sub-clauses before getting to the point. It made it unclear for the reader.

I couldn’t wait to attend the next class. And it did not disappoint. At the end of the course I asked Dr. Gopen if offered courses like this for fiction writers. He said no, because fiction is for the interpretation of the reader, while expository writing, be it legal, journalistic, political, or scientific is to provide information for the reader. Therefore a writer of expository writing should write from the reader’s perspective.

I am happy I took that class. I spoke about it so much that my boss joined me for the second session. Now he’s still talking about it.

I don’t agree with Dr. Gopen about the utility of his course in fiction writing. I’ve read some fiction that are so hard to follow that I gave up reading midway. Yes fiction can have multiple interpretations. But unless the reader comprehends, or if that reader has to expend too much energy reading the material, it becomes unrewarding.

So I’ve begun to apply some of the clarity in my fiction writing. I think I am a better writer for it, both in the non-fiction writing required for my day job and in my fiction writing.


Charles Gramlich said...

Glad it was useful. We talked about this quite a lot in our guidebook on "writing in psychology." There is definitely some bad scientific writing out there that could be written better for the audience.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Very few papers published in the life sciences are written clearly, including those published in high tiered journals like Science and Cell. In fact, just yesterday we reviewed a paper from Cell where the data was great, the scientific merit was beautiful, but the writing was so poor it was difficult to comprehend.

Liane Spicer said...

I've seen too much scientific/technical and also fiction writing where the goal of the author seems to be: Be obtuse! Make 'em work! If the reader has to work too hard to merely comprehend then you lose him.

Sounds like that was a very worthwhile course indeed.

Shauna Roberts said...

I once edited for an obscure journal (which shall remained unnamed) whose style guide mandated replacing a long list of simple words and phrases with more complex ones. It was a difficult job because everyone else I worked for wanted language made MORE comprehensible, not less.

This course sounds fascinating. As I've played around with my own sentences, rearranging them and revising them to see whether I can make them clearer, I've wondered whether there are any rules to make the procedure faster or whether it's an art that one learns only through practice. Did you learn any rules for making things more understandable?

Jewel Amethyst said...

Yes I did. One of the main things was sentence structure, placing the subject and verbs where the readers would expect it. A lot of it was focused on helping the reader expend the least amount of energy. We also discussed stress position where we put what we want to stress in the stress position.

But like Dr Gopen said, the only rule is: there are no rules. It basically is what works best to place emphasis on what you want the reader to emphasize and downplay the qualifiers (unless you want to emphasize the qualifiers).

I wish he did one for fiction writers too because I've gone back and looked at my fiction and found ways to make it clearer.