On Writing: Thinking Toward the Reader

I been out in the desert, just doin’ my time

 

Searchin’ through the dust, lookin’ for a sign —Springsteen

 

At lunch the other day, my good friend Bill Dillon and I were talking about our respective writing schedules. I don’t have one. But the conversation led me to consider a question I hadn’t thought of before. When do I do my writing?

Most of the time I write in my head, not at the keyboard. I write when I’m out at Eagle Beach with my dogs Molly and Murphy, early mornings before sunrise, wandering along the river or out to the edge of low tide on Lynn Canal.

Or when I’m lying in bed gabbing with Michelle about any of the multitude of things married couples gab about on their way to sleep. Or when I’m out on the bike in the glare of morning sunlight.

Or when I’m painting the house — until I start to get sloppy. Or midnights when I can’t sleep and Michelle has already dozed off and I’m still in gabbing mode. Or when some ailment has gotten ahold of me — some cold or flu or any of the accumulating aches and pains of age — and the only way I can escape the slings and arrows is to get out of my head.

Getting out of my own head: that’s how I think of writing. And come to think of it, I’m writing pretty much all the time.

And I notice a subtle but substantial difference between times when I’m just thinking, trying to figure something out, and when I’m thinking to write. Simply put, it’s the difference between trying to understand something and trying to explain it.

In my career as a technical editor, when I was reading some document that was badly written and not at all clear or precise, there was always that initial process of figuring out what the writer was trying to say.

(And sometimes I just had to give up and call the author on the phone or visit her or him in person, and have them explain it to me in person — which they were usually able to do easily and with a clarity and precision that escaped them on the page. And my response was usually the same: why didn’t you just say that?)

But after that initial process of understanding, my brain shifts gears when I’m trying to explain something. There’s another variable thrown into the analytical mix: the reader. The reader forces a subtle shift, a slight adjustment in direction, in the way my thoughts are tending. Now, suddenly, I’m no longer trying to explain something to myself, but trying to explain it to someone else.

That new variable brings with it new questions — those three essential questions that need to be addressed in thinking through the problem, those three essential questions that all writing has to start with, that we have to answer before we start to write:

Who am I talking to?

What am I trying to say?

And why?

— Who am I talking to?

Who’s my reader? The general public? Can I shake off that abstract non-entity and put a real face on my reader? Can I imagine that I am writing to a friend, a spouse, a skeptical acquaintance —real flesh-and-blood readers whose faces are going to go through a farrago of contortions if I just start throwing words at them.

— What am I trying to say?

Even if I have gone through that initial process of understanding my topic, the process of writing is going to force me to understand even more precisely what I’m trying to say. Even the question of whether or not I need a comma or two here or there should be forcing me to think more clearly about what I’m trying to say.

— And why?

If I’m writing about something for an article in a newsletter, I’m going to be writing it much differently than if I’m writing about the same subject in a memo to the boss or in the preamble to a new proposed regulation published in the Federal Register or in an environmental assessment to satisfy the formal requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

These three questions have to be where we start, have to influence our thinking when we begin trying to write. In trying to communicate with readers, we are trying to know something not just through our own eyes but through their eyes. We’re not just thinking about the reader; we’re thinking toward the reader, thinking through the reader, letting ourselves be led by the reader, the only one who really counts when we’re writing. That should lead us to a different kind of thinking.

Thinking toward the reader —in my experience, it’s a state of consciousness that distances me momentarily from that nebulosity of ego called Jim Hale. Only the more I get outside myself, the more I seem to find myself. And that hint of paradox makes me wonder if that ancient aphorism “Know thyself” is really only possible in our communion with each other.

I’ve said that writing is philosophy. I’m beginning to suspect that it’s theology, too.

 

• Jim Hale can be contacted at jimhale821@gmail.com or through his website, jimhalewriting.com. The Alaska Press Club in 2016 awarded him the Suzan Nightingale Award for Best Columnist.

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