You Can’t Please Everyone

In my inaugural post, I highlighted 10 Great Grammar Blogs. One of my favorites from that list, DailyWritingTips, recently posted a list of its own entitled, “50 Tips on How to Write Good,” by Mark Nichol (no relation that I’m aware of). Yes, this initially gave me goose bumps, but being familiar with the lighthearted approach that frequently characterizes DWT pieces, I dove right in.

Sure enough, the list was presented with tongue planted firmly in cheek. It evoked memories of my dad’s wit and impatience with pedantry, and it made me laugh out loud. Thanks, Mark!

I suspect that DWT’s devotees are largely well-educated, well-read—dare I say it? Erudite—folks. Apparently a few of these bright lights lived up to the grammarian’s stereotypical tight lip, furrowed brow, and absence of a sense of humor by launching a barrage of critical nasty-grams at Mark (uttered, no doubt, in a Gallic accent: “I fart in your general direction!”).

In a follow-up post this morning, Nichol offered humbly, “The lesson for me is to write what comes naturally—but to realize that, although I have a role in, and some responsibility for, how my writing is received, it is ultimately the individual reader who determines the success or failure of that writing.” There is fundamental truth in this assertion, but I would add that the overarching lesson of this episode is (to paraphrase Lydgate, Lincoln, et al): You can’t please all of your readers all of the time.

The most important decision you will make before putting pen to paper (or cursor to screen) is who is my audience, who am I writing this for? The resulting profile will dictate your word choice, tone, and level of complexity; it will color every word you write, so it had better be good. You should routinely test your prose against this vignette. If you strive to reach every potential reader, you’ll ultimately succeed in connecting with few or none.

While working as an editor for a major specialist periodical, I was frequently set upon by disgruntled freelance writers who complained vehemently, attempting to justify why a given phrase or passage I had deleted “had to be in there.” My response was, “And were you going to personally visit each and every reader to make your case?” Your prose must speak for itself.

As writers and editors, we labor in the service of the reader. How can we accomplish that mission if we can’t clearly articulate who the reader is? There will always be several categories of reader types for any given story, and they will always have something in common; that is, each group can be visualized as the concentric rings of a target (or the overlapping spheres of a Venn diagram). Aim for the bull’s-eye.

If you have accurately identified your target and employed every ounce of authorial skill you can muster to hit it dead center, you’ve done your part.

In this case, Nichol airily posited that he might have prevented the misunderstanding by titling his piece, “50 Funny, Fallacious Tips on How to Write Good (You Know I Meant ‘Well’).” He was just a-joshin’. In reality, he was on firm footing in assuming his core readership would get the joke. Sadly, the humor was lost on a few readers.

Rather than employing a more explicit title, perhaps he should have concluded the list by citing the inimitable Foghorn Leghorn: “That’s a joke, son—I say, a joke!!!

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.