We typically write in solitude, immersed in our own thoughts and surrounded by our own things. Interruptions – intrusive conversations, incoming emails, needy colleagues – are generally unwelcome in these moments, unless, of course, we are not really in a mood to write. But when we single-mindedly focus on the sheet or screen before us, it is difficult not to be self-centered; not to view the world through the lens of our own needs and expectations.
Yet, the more we withdraw into ourselves, the less likely we are to take our readers’ unique identities into account. Their sensitivities and prejudices; their capacities and limitations; their contextual knowledge or lack thereof – all of this and more will take second place to our own imperatives. And when this happens, the connective function of the written word is compromised, sometimes to the point of leaving our readers confused, annoyed, or depressingly indifferent. Only by consciously putting ourselves in their shoes, by asking how they are likely to receive our words, can we avoid the solipsistic dangers that beset the writer.
In other words, we need to spend less time conveying information and more time engaging those to whom it is directed. There is a place for monologues, but most of what we write should be fundamentally dialogic – a form of communication in which our readers can intuitively see themselves as interlocutors, whether they choose to formally respond to us or not.
Even when we know little or nothing about our readers, we need to adopt this open mindset. As Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd note in Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, “You might well begin by trusting them – by imagining for the reader an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself. No doubt you know some things that the reader does not know (why else presume to write?), but it helps to grant that the reader has knowledge unavailable to you. This isn’t generosity; it is realism. Good writing creates a dialogue between writer and reader, with the imagined reader at moments questioning, criticizing, and sometimes, you hope, assenting.”
At its best, writing accommodates otherness by investing the views we express with empathy. This may mean acknowledging the potential for anxiety in the face of changes we are advocating; or using language that does not reinforce prejudicial stereotypes; or soliciting others’ input even as we make our case; or respecting generational differences in our choice of salutations; or translating our expertise into terminology that someone outside our field can understand.
True, this kind of writing is more taxing than a stream of consciousness built around the pronoun “I”, but in stepping outside ourselves, our words are likely to have far greater impact than any forged in isolation.