Writing is knowing your conversation

When we converse with a partner in real life, we have a sense of what they know, what they’re interested in, and how they’re feeling. We see their nods of understanding and their eyebrow-raises of surprise. We read their boredom by their lack of response or the wandering of their eyes. If they are confused or incredulous, they are free to stop us and request clarification.

When we write, we enjoy none of these contextual clues and real-time responses. The reader is remote from the writer: invisible, silent. Distant in time and space.

But in order to engage our reader, we must transmit a stream of words that will keep the reader engaged and not bored or incredulous. It’s the same job as we have real life. We must understand what the reader knows, believes, feels, and wants so that we can keep them engaged as we lay down the next thought to move the reader’s mind in the direction we want it to go.

To do this, we must have a clear conception of the type of imaginary conversation we are in with the reader. There are many possibilities. We may imagine ourselves as a preacher delivering a sermon. We may be a subject matter expert explaining a topic to an interested friend.

Whatever the case, the writer must imagine himself in some kind of conversation speak as he would in the successful real-life version of the conversation.

Which simulation should a writer immerse himself in? In another post I’ll tell you about the classic style.

The above is a paraphrase from chapter 2 of Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style”.


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