- On October 8, 2014
“Who wrote this crap?”
Steven Pinker often asks himself that question when he’s reviewing his work. “Who’s Steven Pinker?” you might ask. He’s a professor at Harvard, chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and author of a new book on writing, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. He’s a smart guy.
Smart people, he argues, often lay out their thoughts in ways their readers can’t easily absorb. That’s why it’s so important to put yourself in your readers’ shoes. You’re writing for them, not yourself, so be mindful of shortcuts you might unwittingly take that could leave them scratching their heads.
Giving your document a rest will greatly improve the odds it’ll serve its purpose. Yes, that’s hard in business when everything was due an hour ago.
Here are three things you can do, if changing corporate culture and client deadlines are not among them:
• Get someone else to read it, particularly someone who’s part of your target audience. James Harrison, copyeditor extraordinaire, reads my bulletins. Often things I think are clear as a newly washed window elicit a hunh?
• Read it aloud. You hear things you don’t read.
• Avoid sending anything right away. Who’s going to argue with, “I’d like to give it a fresh eye in the morning and then send it to you”?
You want what you write to have staying power. You want it to make sense two days from now—and, better yet, in two months. BTW, James Harrison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.