You have a reader in mind. So does your text. But sometimes, the two don’t match.

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Everything you write holds beliefs about its readers. I don’t mean the audience that you, the writer, might have in mind, that you shape your text for. I mean the audience that the text you’re producing imagines, with or without your intent.

Consider the mini-controversy over the food blog Thug Kitchen, one of whose taglines is “Welcome motherforkers,” and whose copy is full of lines like “Calm your bitch ass down like a boss.” Here’s some ad copy for their first cookbook:

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The sum of the controversy was that Thug Kitchen is a couple of white people trying to sound black to sell stuff. There was, predictably, a backlash, and then, equally predictably, a backlash to the backlash. And while there’s too much going on with their writing to unpack now, let’s just extract one item: in the backlash to the backlash, a bunch of folks claimed that “thug” wasn’t especially associated with being black in the U.S. …

Turning verbs into nouns — nominalization — is a common cause of confusing sentences

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Here’s a construction I see a lot that contributes to over-complicated writing:

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The construction’s bones are “the [blank] of [blank].” It tangles up sentences and disguises concrete ideas as abstractions, but it also sometimes covers for unclear or missing information.

Here’s another example:

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And one more:

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In most sentences, you’re in a mental holding pattern until you get to the verb. Let’s look at first the example above, which comes from a paper published by the Food and Agricultural arm of the United Nations.

The main idea in the first part of this sentence is that somebody did a study. That chunk of language is straightforward (passive voice aside): “Study has been done.” It’s always good when we can connect nouns to verbs quickly. …

An important concept for explaining complicated material

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Good writing often has less to do with grammar and convention than with who your readers are and what they know. This is extra true when you’re explaining something, e.g. in technical writing or reporting or documenting. When we explain, we have to imagine what the audience knows, what will be totally unfamiliar, and how we might build the conceptual bridges to escort readers from where they are to where we hope they’ll be when we’re done. (It also helps to imagine any preconceived notions and dispositions they might hold toward your topic — but that’s for another time.)

A lot goes into doing this well, but in this post, I want to concentrate on a central aspect of this bridging: integrating new ideas into existing ones. …

About

Adam Cogbill

Content strategist, PhD (writing and argument). Forever learning and needing more coffee.

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