Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"The key to all good writing is understanding your audience"

This is something I have been telling my students at Commits since I began teaching journalism in April 2003. Good writers understand this. And the best writing teachers, such as William Zinsser, have devoted whole chapters in their books to "writing for your audience".

Now, on this very important subject, here is Jack Lynch, the man I consider my grammar guru since I discovered his indispensable online guide to writing. Here is the relevant entry:
The key to all good writing is understanding your audience. Every time you use language, you engage in a rhetorical activity, and your attention should always be on the effect it will have on your audience.

Think of grammar and style as analogous to, say, table manners. Grammatical “rules” have no absolute, independent existence; there is no Grammar Corps to track you down for using “whose” when “of which” is more proper, just as Miss Manners employs no shock troops to massacre people who eat their salads with fish forks. You can argue, of course, that the other fork works just as well (or even better), but both the fork and the usage are entirely arbitrary and conventional. Your job as a writer is to have certain effects on your readers, readers who are continuously judging you, consciously or unconsciously. If you want to have the greatest effect, you'll adjust your style to suit the audience, however arbitrary its expectations.

A better analogue might be clothing. A college English paper calls for the rough equivalent of the jacket and tie (ladies, you're on your own here). However useless or ridiculous the tie may be, however outdated its practical value as a garment, certain social situations demand it, and if you go into a job interview wearing a T-shirt and jeans, you only hurt yourself by arguing that the necktie has no sartorial validity. Your job is to figure out what your audience expects. Likewise, if your audience wants you to avoid ending your sentences with prepositions, no amount of argument over historical validity will help.

But just as you shouldn't go under-dressed to a job interview, you shouldn't over-dress either. A white tie and tails will make you look ridiculous at a barbecue, and a pedantic insistence on grammatical bugbears will only lessen your audience's respect for you. There are occasions when ain't is more suitable than is not, and the careful writer will take the time to discover which is the more appropriate.

See Diction, Formal Writing, Prescriptive versus Descriptive Grammars, Rules, and Taste.
Not only is this guide indispensable; it is also comprehensive. I became so enamoured of Jack Lynch's witty and clever writing style and his easy-to-grasp examples that, last week, I bought a copy of his book for the college library. At Rs.850 on Amazon, it's a steal.

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