Don't assume context
November 6, 2010
This morning I headed out to a coffee shop about a mile and half from our house. A heavy wet snow was falling and sticking on the grill, picnic table, swing set, and lawn furniture in the back yard. There was probably half an inch already on the ground.
Two blocks from home the snow had turned to what weather folks on t.v. call a “wintry mix”. I’m sure they use other words when they are away from microphones and need to talk about this freezing rain that was falling. The streets were a slushy mess. Not slippery, just nasty.
Another half a mile and it was just a steady autumn rain falling. There was no trace of snow on the ground. None, until an hour and a half later I returned home and the snow was still falling and another inch covered the backyard.
If I’d called Kim from the coffee shop, her world would have been filled with this beautiful first snow of the year while I would have wondered what she was talking about. A little over a mile away from each other and our contexts were as different as can be.
If this is true about me and someone I know separated only by a short distance, how can you possibly hope to connect with your reader?
Yesterday I talked about how you want to have an authentic voice. You can think of wandering over to someone’s cube or meeting them for coffee and use the same voice in writing that you would in speaking to them.
As with all rules for writers, you can take this advice too far.
Choose an appropriate context in which you are talking to the reader but don’t be overly concrete. You want them to feel comfortable in your presence. You neither want to creep them out nor do you want to take them out of the moment.
For example, suppose you’ve made a point that you want the reader to be able to come back to later. You have a specific reader in mind. You’re writing books and picturing that the reader will be sitting at his or her desk reading your book while working on their desktop computer so you say, “Reach into your top drawer and grab a yellow pad of sticky notes. Write ‘CSS-float’ on the top one and use it to mark this page.
This simple pair of sentences makes so many assumptions about the reader. In addition to the obvious ones about their location and desk set up, you’re assuming that they are reading your book as a physical entity where pages can be marked or written on. If you’d written this paragraph a decade ago that was a safe assumption. Who would have believed we’d have ebooks that we could read on our laptops, Kindles, Nooks, or iPads?
It’s much safer to say something more like this: “We’re going to use the CSS float property. I’m going to skip the details for now but mark the code above and we’ll come back to it when we’re ready to look at how we position elements.”
You want to be concrete and specific and help paint a mental picture when you can. At the same time the reader is losing him or herself in your book. You are their guide through some sort of an adventure or exploration in some sort of world. You don’t want to jolt them and take them out of that world and back into the one where it’s just them sitting somewhere reading your book.