Reader-centered writing for millennials

This column is for all writers wondering how to connect with an audience, and most especially for my millennial friends who may be newer to the territory of legal writing. Let's start from a place of trust: I love you, I respect you, and I wouldn't be raising this if it weren't really that important. Are you ready to hear what I have to say?

It's about reader-centered writing.

Most of us begin with writer-centered writing. That's what I'm doing now. I pick a topic that gets me fired up and start typing. Sometimes I pause to consider what you might think of it, more often I don't; the important thing is to spill words onto the screen. Which is fine if I'm capturing ideas, or taking notes, or memorializing a conversation, or writing a journal-in every case, I'm writing for myself. It is private. (Quick reminder for the busy: "private" means no one else sees it.)

In the remote depths of history private writing stayed private. Someone would have to make the effort to find legible scraps of paper written by a person of interest, deliver them to a publisher, and submit them for extensive fact-checking, editing, and polishing before the words therein would see the light of day. Not so much anymore. It has become breathtakingly easy (or so it seems to old farts like myself) for anyone to make private writing extremely public. I can reach the world simply by dropping my unfiltered words into a post or a tweet.

"Okay," you may say, "I know all this. Your point?"

Exactly. You're the audience, and if our minds are to meet I have to know where you are. To succeed as a writer, I must-must-write with the audience in mind. It is not enough that the writer understands the words or likes how they sounds; the audience must accept the writer as a reliable source and embrace her message as valuable.

Put another way, readers judge us-just the way viewers judge how well we speak in public and everyone seems to have an opinion on what I should or shouldn't be wearing in my latest headshot. Law-trained readers, particularly opposing counsel, are looking for reasons to doubt that we know what we're talking about.

We have to avoid giving them easy ways to discredit us, and that means navigating the minefield of common grammar peeves. Reader expectations about grammar and writing may be unfamiliar, but no writer can afford to ignore them because they're the first hurdle to getting the reader's attention and trust.

I made this column for millennials not just because I've heard a number of folks of a certain vintage complain (as every generation seems to do) that young people don't know how to write, but because I've also heard a surprising number of young people complain that they shouldn't have to make the effort if people can understand them. With respect, both sides are wrong. Young writers can and do write well. But for those who aren't sure why they should bother to learn old-school rules, I have some data points for you.

The ABA Journal recently asked readers, "What frequently misused-or misspelled-phrases annoy you?" Within a matter of days, dozens of readers kicked in their two cents to furnish a rich pot of tips for the aspiring reader-centered writer. Distilled to their essence, here's what I saw:

Yes, readers still think there is such a thing as word misuse. Apparently many writers use words whose literal meaning they do not quite know, including contingent, decimate, destroy, fortuitous, hone, nonplussed, methodology, verbal, penultimate, and unique.

Readers are frustrated by confusion between words with similar appearance or sound such as moot and mute; lost and loss; lose and loose; incidence and incidents; reign and rein; led and lead; pour and pore; tortious and tortuous; pique, peek, and peak; quick and quit (think quitclaim deed) and many others too ugly to name. Besides this there remains longstanding confusion and distress about the difference between contractions and possessives (it's and its, your and you're). (See Exhibit A in the case of Clear Writing v. Auto-Transcribe.)

Readers dislike verbed nouns (impact or conference as verbs, for example) however trendy they may be. Speaking of trendy, many readers are slow to warm up to new meanings even when those meanings have been widely embraced by the business community (disrupt as a good thing, for example).

Readers detest redundancies (for example, you need only the first word in including but not limited to, remand back, PDF format, and queso cheese).

Some words still do not exist. "Alot" as a single word, for example. And irregardless.

Cliches, such as "at the end of the day," may really jerk some readers' chains (as it were). Especially when they evolve to the point when they make no sense ("the proof's in the pudding"-um, no it's not. The proof of the pudding is in the eating-or for all intensive purposes). And the expression "begs the question" is so widely misunderstood as to be well and truly skunked.

You may have noticed I am calling out some problems without offering their solutions. Guess what? Most often, in legal writing, that's how it works. Readers judge me silently; when I e-file a document, there is no section for comments (and no, esteemed members of the judiciary, that was not a suggestion). A lawyer doesn't get to see whether a reader is put off by the content of the argument or by the use of irregardless. We don't usually have the benefit of instantaneous or precise reader feedback. When people are annoyed, they tune us out and walk away, and we may never learn why.

So we must commit to being proactive. Understanding where your readers are and what annoys them is necessary, but not sufficient; besides that, we need to be willing to do the work of bridging that gap. It is work, to be sure: we have to question what we assume, look things up, try doing things differently, risk the appearance of ignorance to avoid its reality. All writers have to resist the temptation to take it easy and make the readers work harder to understand us.

My millennial friends, you have truly impressed me with your eloquence and commitment to making a difference in the world, compared to which improving your writing is but a small effort. I'm confident you can do it and look forward to reading your work.

Published: Tue, Apr 10, 2018