I often talk about the importance of loving your reader—flipping the switch from writing for what you can get from the reader to writing for what you can give to the reader. That is a philosophical, and even a theological principle. But it also has plenty of practical applications. In this letter, a lightly revised version of a 2018 episode of The Habit Weekly (when The Habit Weekly was in its infancy), I attempt to show how loving your reader changes the way you think about every aspect of writing, right down to your grammar.
I have an online course called Grammar for Writers (it’s included in the Habit Membership, or through Compass Classroom). The driving principle of this course is that good grammar is a way to love your reader. I realize we don’t usually associate grammar with love. Even people who say they love grammar usually mean they love correcting other people’s grammar. (Did that sound judgmental? Well, if the Grammar Police are going to dish it out, they’d better learn how to take it too.) Consider the glee with which people collect and correct grammar and usage mistakes. Such grammar policing has nothing to do with love. I’m sure you’ve noticed how correct usage and spelling have been weaponized in online comments sections. If I can point out an opponent’s grammar and spelling mistakes, that feels like a pretty decent substitute for the moral high ground.
Too often we think of grammar in terms of correctness. Correctness tends to be about the writer. I strive for correct usage, not so much because I love my reader, but because I love myself and don’t want my reader to think I’m unintelligent or undereducated.
Instead of thinking of grammar as a way of signaling something about me and my credentials, I have found it helpful to think of good grammar as a means of making life easier for the reader who might want to hear from me. Elsewhere I have written about the fact that the passive voice requires extra decoding work from your reader; I argued that when you ask more of your reader it’s important that you give them more. That’s an example of what I mean when I say that loving your reader is relevant even to the grammar you use.
A friend of mine recently wrote the following sentence in a piece she submitted to a well-known website:
Social media shows us tight circles of friends, inside jokes, and meet-ups we weren’t invited to, all providing fertile soil for jealousy.
Her editor pointed out that the word media is plural, not singular, so it would be more proper to write:
Social media show us tight circles of friends, inside jokes, and meet-ups we weren’t invited to, all providing fertile soil for jealousy.
The editor was correct. The word media is technically plural and technically should take a plural verb. But notice how the the grammar draws attention to itself in that clause, Social media show us. The reader pauses, steps out of the sentence, stops thinking about social media and inside jokes and jealousy altogether, and thinks, Social media show? Shouldn’t that be social media shows? No, social media is plural. I guess the writer got it right after all.
Now, if you’re a certain kind of writer (I almost said certain kind of person), you may think this is an excellent outcome: the reader has thought about your skills as a grammarian and has judged you to be correct. If you are that kind of writer, you have your reward in full.
But if you care about your content and you care about your reader, and you want to introduce them to one another, you don’t want your readers to think about your grammar at all. You want them to stay in the sentence and think about social media, tight circles of friends, inside jokes, and jealousy. So you look for another way to skin that cat—a way that is grammatically correct without calling attention to the grammar. You might write something like:
If you’ve spent any time on social media, you know about the tight circles of friends, the inside jokes, the meet-ups you weren’t invited to; all of this is fertile soil for jealousy.
That’s another lovely thing about English grammar: it is so flexible that it always gives you another way to love your reader.
Loving Word Choice
I’ve gotten a number of questions about vocabulary and diction. This is another area in which it is helpful to discern your motives: are you choosing your words because you hope your reader will think or feel certain things about you, or are you choosing words that connect a reader you care about with content that you care about?
I appreciated the honesty of a writer who had the following to say about word choice (he was responding to an earlier letter in which somebody mentioned writing like a sophisticated fifth-grader, hence the reference in the first sentence):
I read the thesaurus when I actually was a quasi-sophisticated fifth grader, and I liked to try out new words in casual conversations with my big brothers. They often called me out. “Did you learn a new word today?” Even now, if I read an unfamiliar word in a novel, I stop and look it up, and often applaud the author. Basically, I have an abundant vocabulary, and I use it when I write.
I’ve had occasions where I’ve used a word that I think is exactly right, but it might be a little obscure, and an editor will change it to something more commonplace. I understand — I don’t want to come across as a thesaurus-hound who tries to fancify my pedestrian prose — but I liked my word better!
There is nothing unusual about this writer’s struggle with word choice. I suspect that most of us who care about words could have written a similar couple of paragraphs, so I don’t wish to single this writer out for criticism. But do you see how much of this passage is concerned with how the writer comes across and what the writer wants? He doesn’t want to look like a thesaurus hound. He applauds authors for their obscure words and wants to use obscure words of his own. He pushes back on his editor because he likes his words better than the editor’s words. In these two paragraphs, there is a writer, there is an editor, there are even critics (the writer’s big brothers), but there is no reader.
When you write, it is hard to stop thinking about how you come across, what words you like to use and to think instead about what helps connect the reader with content that the reader needs. When you do, your vocabulary takes on a new significance. Now a big vocabulary represents more ways to give good gifts to your readers. Sometimes they need simple, straightforward words; sometimes they need to be stretched; sometimes they need metaphor and simile; sometimes they need vivid imagery; sometimes a well-placed five-dollar latinate word is just the thing.
“I like my word better!” won’t convince an editor. But “I chose this word because it gives X and Y to the reader”—that’s a response an editor has to listen to.
Killing Your Darlings
Somebody famously said, “Kill your darlings.” (Faulkner is usually credited as the source of that quotation, but this article from Slate suggests otherwise.) What are your darlings, and why should you kill them? In your writing, your darlings are those passages that cause you to suspect that you are a genius after all. You must be willing to sacrifice those darlings for the sake of the work—for the sake of the reader—”even when it breaks your egocentric scribbler’s heart,” as Stephen King put it.
But isn’t it possible that your most cherished writing might actually be your best writing? It would be a shame to kill those darlings too. So how do you decide which darlings must be put to death? Once again, the principle “Love your reader” comes to the rescue.
Ask yourself why a darling passage is so dear to you. Is it dear because it makes you feel good about yourself? If so, feel good about yourself; you have written something beautiful or clever or funny or insightful. Rejoice. But that doesn’t mean you should foist it on the poor reader, who never signed up to affirm you or give meaning to your life.
But on the other hand, perhaps that passage is dear to you because it would be dear to your readers, giving them something that they couldn’t get for themselves. In that case, let that darling live.