See? It’s annoying when authors make assumptions about you, right?

Daniel Goldman
Jul 15 · 3 min read
Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash

Some of my articles have titles that rely on general calls to action, but I generally don’t reference my reader in the title. I don’t like to make assumptions about my readers. But far too often I have read articles titled along the lines of “you probably… blah blah blah” or “you’ve never… blah blah blah.” My article urging authors to be subscribers is probably the closest I’ve come, and I still don’t reference my reader in specific second person language.

Why Do This?

How does the author know what I have done, what I know, what I’ve experienced, and so on? While authors do generally write to a specific author, it’s bad practice to explicitly state an assumption about those readers.

I understand that it’s a common way of writing. I’m still forcing myself away from it. I often use “you” when writing articles. But this style of writing continues to make assumptions about you, the reader. For instance, is it true that you see Facebook spam with these kinds of titles, all the time? I do. But maybe you don’t use Facebook.

Here’s an example of a poorly constructed title: “21 Surprising Regional Foods You’ve Never Heard Of” written on Taste of Home. Well guess what. I’ve heard of most of them. Why do I want to read an article that tells me that I haven’t?

Medium Does It Too

It happens on Medium as well. “You’ve Probably Never Had Real Soy Sauce,” by Wei Tchou is actually the inspiration for this article. I might have ended up reading the article at some point, but I did write a fairly terse comment.

One thing that I absolutely hate, and pretty much stops me from even reading an article, is when the author makes an assumption about their readers. I haven’t even looked at the article itself, and I won’t. Stop assuming what your readers do and do not know, what they’ve experienced, etc.

It’s really annoying. It’s not a good way to write. I was even more amused by the response to my comment. Instead of leaving the comment alone, or thanking me for the feedback and suggesting that I read the article anyway, her response was far more succinct: “too bad!”

Update: I did have further discussion with the author and they were quite polite. I ended up reading the article, and it is an interesting read. As a foodie, I definitely liked it. I think the issue was a result of trying to create a catchy headline, using an unfortunately overused style.

Better Ways

There really are better ways to discuss the topic. For instance, it’s likely true that many people haven’t tried real soy sauce. A lot of soy sauce is made by enzymatically breaking down proteins in soy, corn, etc. Really true soy sauce is doing the same thing, but it’s using koji, which is a type of mold to do it. But I digress. The point is that we can convey just as much information if we write “most people haven’t tried real soy sauce” instead of “you probably haven’t tried real soy sauce.” But in the first case, we are not making any assumption about the person reading the article.

And it goes beyond titles. While the use of “you” might feel more personal, and it is, that means an author who chooses to use it places themselves at risk of offending the reader. Only when you select a specific audience in the very beginning of your article should one use second person in articles that are potentially read by a large audience. Otherwise in many ways, an author who uses second person is invading the reader’s personal space. And yes; I have a long way to go to make sure that I do not make this kind of error myself.

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Daniel Goldman

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I’m a polymath and a rōnin scholar. That is to say that I enjoy studying many different topics. Find more at http://danielgoldman.us

Freelance Journalism Alliance

We’re a guild helping freelance journalists make a living.

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