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Gentle Reader, Stay Awhile; I Will Be Faithful

by Published in Writing · 32 Comments

Every opening paragraph is the beginning of a delicate and transient relationship between reader and writer. This relationship begins quietly, usually without much fanfare—and if it’s properly initiated, the reader doesn’t even know it’s happening. Yet the success of this relationship is an important factor in creating an enjoyable, engaging experience for the reader. This is especially true on the web where author credibility can be difficult to establish, and where, increasingly, readers have so many choices that separating the chaff from the wheat can be a daunting process.

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One of my favorite scenes from Shakespeare comes from Hamlet, wherein Polonius reads to the queen a love letter addressed to his daughter. Impatient, the queen interrupts, wanting to know if the letter was authored by her son, Hamlet. Polonius admonishes her saying, “Good madam, stay awhile. I will be faithful.” (Act II, Scene ii)

Like the queen, online readers tend to have little patience. This is due to several factors, not the least of which is that unless the reader knows my work, he doesn’t necessarily know if he can trust me, and he is wary of investing in a relationship that might not work out for him. People do still tend to view online media with more skepticism than print media, and often this skepticism is warranted. In order to earn my reader’s trust, in order to convince him to “stay awhile,” I must be faithful.

From writer to faithful writer

Writers write for different reasons. Sometimes we are moved by something that has happened to us in our personal lives. Perhaps we are stirred to respond to something we read online or in print. Sometimes our jobs force us to write. In these situations, it is very easy to write only for ourselves or only for our employers­—in other words, for everyone but the real reader. The unsuspecting reader may stumble upon this work and be left with more questions than answers:

  • What prompted the author to write this article?
  • What greater context surrounds this work?
  • What’s really the point of this paper?
  • Is she writing this for someone in my position, or a different set of people altogether?

If my reader comes away with too many of these questions, it means I have not really done my job; I have not been faithful. This sort of reader experience is often the result of unidirectional writing in which the writer simply doesn’t see the reader on the other end of her work. Her writing becomes too self-centered, too myopic, or conversely, much too general.

To be a faithful writer is to form a clear mental picture of that reader and speak to him as a real person. A faithful writer keeps at the forefront of her mind that she is writing for someone, that her work is only truly completed in the reader himself. A faithful writer makes the reader glad he stayed.

Being faithful

I spent about a year working in marketing. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned was that a good campaign does two things: 1) it delivers what the marketer wants the audience to know, and 2) it delivers the information the audience wants to know. Good marketing doesn’t just sell a product or service; good marketing creates a feeling of trust or faith between the audience and the company. After all, at the end of the day we’re talking about people interacting with people; we’re talking about relationships.

The same is true for writing. When I write, I must tell my reader what I want him to know—otherwise, why am I writing? On the other hand, I must also address whatever it is my reader wants to know. He probably wants background information, related reading, and source information. (For example, if I am writing an article on tea making, I should tell my reader where to find the supplies I mention in my article.) He certainly wants the information that he expects to find. (How many of us have thrown things at our computers when we seek answers from a FAQ, only to find marketing fluff instead of real questions and answers?)

The reader also wants to know where my weaknesses are and where the gaps in my knowledge lie. Honesty goes a long way, and it is better to point my reader to another article and another faithful writer than damage the relationship with partial truths and faulty information. These things aren’t always fun or interesting to write about, but our reader values this information, and if we value our reader, we will oblige his needs.

To convince my reader to stay awhile, I must offer good faith and demonstrate that I am loyal to his cause, whether that cause is learning how to make the most delicious deviled eggs or mere high-brow entertainment. In this way, writing is a kind of alliance. It is the basis for a relationship of trust. And on the internet, where relationships and content are both mere ephemerons, showing a reader that I am loyal to his cause is particularly important.

The beauty and importance of the single reader

I don’t write for an audience. Audiences are impersonal and distant. When I think of writing for an audience, I feel obligated to put on a show and be properly entertaining. But although I do hope my readers enjoy what I write, my primary goal isn’t to appear larger-than-life. Therefore, when I write, I initiate an intimate conversation with one reader. Not an audience: just one person. Being a faithful writer in this context means being devoted to my reader and his immediate goals and being consistent in my attempt to craft a quiet dialogue with him. I imagine him sitting before me, asking questions, making suggestions, wanting to know more. I consider my obligation to this person (an obligation that will vary depending on what I am writing), and consider each aspect of my writing, from my tone to my content to the hyperlinks, and evaluate whether these things serve my reader and not merely my own agenda. If I imagine that I am inviting a single person to journey with me into a topic about which we both care, I am much more likely to reach his heart and mind, and this is what I want. I want him engaged—I want him glad he invested his time with me.

The reader’s time

I know my reader could be doing any number of other things, but he is choosing to spend his time with me, and this is another reason I don’t write for an audience. Audiences don’t have “time” to respect. It’s easy to think of an audience as a captive and to abuse our time together; it is more difficult to think of a single reader that way. The single reader is much more likely to flee and he is therefore more demanding of my attention and respect.

Of course, it won’t always be possible to address every reader equally. Nevertheless, I shouldn’t merely resort to catering to the lowest common denominator. Lazy writing is never good writing, and it doesn’t show good faith toward the reader. It may require some extra time to deliver the reader to exotic or interesting places on the web, but if it earns his trust, the time is well spent.

Earning respect

It is important that I honor not only my reader’s time, but his intelligence and interests as well. If I am writing an advanced or specialized article, I am not going to pepper my work with links to basic articles or very popular sites my reader has likely already visited. Part of my job is to unveil something new and interesting, to offer something to pique his curiosity. I want to take my reader places he will enjoy visiting; I want to be a worthy tour guide in all aspects of the subject we are exploring together. I can’t do that if I underestimate his knowledge or inquisitiveness. As a show of good faith, I want to reveal something of myself, something I find compelling. I want to show him a piece of the web that he might not have found on his own. In this way, I not only earn his trust by honoring his intelligence and his time, I also earn his respect by showing him something he may find impressive or fulfilling.

Faithful writers encourage faithful readers

Although most of us read something daily, we aren’t all good readers. Being a good reader is challenging; many of us aren’t taught this skill in school, and even fewer of us have discovered the best way to read and absorb online content. Realizing the difficulties even a talented reader faces, web content writers have a special obligation to help their readers be good readers.

Good readers interpret what they are reading, whether they are reading a blog, an academic journal, or a recap of The Colbert Report. They ask questions about the text and about the author. “Is she credible? What are her biases? Do I agree with what she’s saying?” Our job as writers is to predict these questions and to address them in our writing. We should imagine ourselves immersed in a conversation taking place in a time warp; we are challenged with answering questions and satisfying curiosities before they are formed. It is no small feat, but the attentive reader will respect us for catering to his needs.

Context

Good readers also attempt to place texts within their historical and cultural contexts. As a writer, I have no way of knowing if my readers will stumble upon my work two weeks after I’ve written it, or two years after it has been archived. Either way, I want to do my reader the courtesy of helping him contextualize the content, especially if I am writing a timely article or delivering technical information that is likely to quickly become obsolete. This is especially important on the web, where fresh material constantly replaces stale. Because the nature of web publishing allows content updates to happen regularly, readers have been conditioned to assume that what they’re reading is current.

If I know a date will be attached to my work, it is probably less important to place my writing in its proper cultural or historical context. On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to remind my reader of the zeitgeist that shapes my work. I can’t know when in time a reader will enter into the conversation I have so carefully initiated. The more clues I can give him about the world in which I am living and experiencing, the more deeply my reader can engage with me, the more faith he will have in our unfolding relationship.

Why bother?

Some writers might briefly consider what I suggest here before disregarding it, concluding that it is a waste of time to be faithful writers when so many of our readers won’t even be good readers, let alone faithful readers. Why should we spend so much time carefully crafting a relationship with a reader who might not be interested in making a similar commitment? For me, the answer is very simple: if just one person is enriched by the reader-writer relationship I have attempted to establish, I have done my job. I don’t have to reach everyone, I just have to reach someone. If I consider that even a single reader is worth my time and write with that level of individual respect, it is also likely that I will reach many more people.

The reader is an integral, necessary participant in the complete writing process. This is especially true on the web where reading is often a deliberate process: readers choose which links to follow, which threads to pursue. A good writer must consider whom she is writing for when choosing which links to include, which journeys to suggest. Of course, writing is also intensely personal—it has to be. And yet picking up the pen or sitting down at the keyboard, is also a commitment to my reader.

To sum up

Perhaps this all appears to be a lot of work. But essentially it boils down to a few key points:

  • Write for a single reader rather than an audience. Speak to him in an appropriate tone, and treat him as a real person.
  • Tell your reader what he wants to know, even if it bores you to tell him.
  • Provide as much context as possible.
  • Anticipate and answer your reader’s questions.
  • Take your reader on an interesting and well-considered journey into the web.
  • Respect the time your reader chooses to spend with you. Treat him fairly.

The web is a unique medium for the writer. I prefer writing for the web to writing for print. I appreciate the immediacy of the medium, and I enjoy the lack of boundaries between readers and writers. I welcome the unique set of challenges that writing for the web presents. I enjoy each moment that allows me to create new, faithful relationships with unsuspecting readers who encounter my voice.

If I’ve done my job well, at least a handful of readers will indeed stay awhile.

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