Write Smart: Don’t Dumb Down Your Reader

Photo courtesy of Farconville/FreeDigitalPhotos

Readers are smart. They’re smart because they read. And if there’s one thing smart readers hate, it’s when writers treat them like they’re dumb.

One way writers dumb down their readers is by info-dumping. Check out these examples:

“When are things going to get back to the way they were before? Can you believe it’s been ten years since daddy left us?” Marsha turned from her sister and wiped a tear. “We had to move into public housing and go on food stamps. Then our brother died and Daddy never even knew. And then you had to ago into rehab. It’s all his fault.”

Let’s be honest here, would we ever have a conversation like that with our siblings? I doubt it. After all, it’s simply a retelling of facts we would both already know. It’s dumping info on to the page for the perceived benefit of the reader. But our readers won’t appreciate the so-called benefit. They can see through our ruse. They know that we’re taking the easy way out.

A good writer will bring those backstory details into the plot layer by layer, revealing facts and motivations through dialogue and POV in a more subtle, natural delivery. One detail may come out on page 5 when Marsha stands in line behind someone with food stamps. Another might be revealed on page 23 when Marsha picks up her sister at rehab and they realize it’s been exactly 10 years since their father left.Using this technique, your reader will be challenged and satisfied by putting together the pieces of the puzzle.

Another way to distance our readers is through unnecessary explanation. Ever read passages similar to these?

“I don’t care what you think!” Melanie yelled again. She wanted to be sure Jason had heard her.

Carly placed the rock on the gravestone and cried because she missed her mother so much.

In these two instances, the writer assumes the reader isn’t smart enough to figure out the characters’ motivations, so he or she writes out an additional explanation. But smart readers don’t appreciate the extra work the writer has done. Instead of being a help, it’s an insult to their reading intelligence. Well-written passages with well-developed characters don’t need explanation.

Which brings me to the reason you’re getting this lesson today. This past Sunday was my 61st birthday, complete with birthday wishes and jokes about getting older. After church a funny thing happened as Gary and I prepared for lunch…and I just had to share it with my Facebook friends.

Here’s the story, copied and pasted from my Facebook page:

Okay, I’ll give all of you a laugh at my expense. This afternoon Gary asked me what the two slices of bacon were doing in the microwave. I told him it wasn’t me, that I hadn’t eaten any bacon since I made that BLT on Friday. To which he asked, “Did you put bacon on it?”

I started to say, “Of course I did. What do you think I am–Stupid?” But before I could say it, I suddenly remembered that I thought the BLT didn’t have any flavor. Now I know why.

There was no B in the BLT. 🙁

As my friend, Karen O’Connor says in her book, “Getting old ain’t for wimps…”

Although there are several things I would have written differently if I were writing it for real publication, here are some things I did take the time to address.

When I initially wrote it, I explained that I had forgotten to put the bacon on my sandwich two days before. And I really wanted to create more set-up by telling that Gary and I had discussed flavorless winter tomatoes days before, setting me up to think it was the tomatoes that caused the flavorless sandwich.

But then it hit me: Readers don’t really care that we had discussed tomatoes earlier, or that as a multitasking professional, I had moved on to other things and forgotten about the bacon in the microwave.

As a matter of fact, if I had it to do over again, I’d probably leave off the reference to Karen O’Connor’s book, simply because adding anything after the punchline takes away from the delivery.

But one thing I think did go well was: There was no B in the BLT.

Short, to the point, and without explanation. I trusted my readers to get it.

And they did. 🙂

Treat your readers with respect and they’ll love you for it.

(Photo courtesy of Farconville/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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