Escape the Deadly Writing Trap that the Smartest Authors Fall into

I was working with an author last week who was struggling to find his way with his manuscript. “When I talk about these ideas, I’m succinct, relaxed, sometimes even funny. But when I sit down to write, the words come out all formal and stiff. Why can’t I be myself in my writing?”

Sure enough, his chapter draft was dry, stuffed with extraneous details, and weighed down by industry jargon. I knew him to be a lively, quick-witted person of passion and deep empathy. Where was he in this draft?

It wasn’t the first time I’ve come across this problem as a writing coach. In fact, it’s an incredibly common pitfall that the smartest experts with the most original ideas are especially prone to: I call it “defensive writing”.

In defensive writing, the author is so concerned with putting out a perfect book that she winds up writing for her critics instead of her readers. If you fall prey to it, it can make you focus on all the wrong things and even risk ruining your book.

Ironically, it’s the most diligent authors with the best information to share who are the most prone to this. The fact that they care so much about the accuracy of their research and the originality of their ideas is the very reason their books have the potential to be life-changing – if only they can stop writing so defensively.

Here are a few ways defensive writing can damage your book.

1. You get stuck on “selling” readers on your idea.

When you aren’t sure of your authority, it’s easy to get stuck in pitch mode, sprinkling the whole book with urgent warnings in an effort to persuade your readers to sit up and pay attention to what you have to say. They would much rather you just get on with saying it! Beyond the introduction in your book, you have to assume your readers are on board. Stop trying to win them over, and focus instead on delivering what they’ve already signed up for.

2. Your message is bogged down by too much background information.

You know that your ideas stand on the shoulders of the great thinkers in your field who came before you, and the last thing you want is to seem to be taking credit for their work by neglecting to acknowledge their contribution. You may feel obliged to cover every significant development or school of thought that shaped the context in which you write today, but it’s better to stick to the essentials and be very concise with the background information. Unless you are writing for an academic audience, your reader is not trying to become a world-class expert in the history of your subject; he just wants you to tell him what he needs to know, and no more. Save the microscopic analysis for discussions with your peers – or post it on your blog.

3. You’re hooked on jargon.

Experts hate it when editors insist on stripping jargon out of their manuscripts. “I don’t want to dumb down my work! My peers will think I’m a dilettante if I don’t use the correct technical terms.” But take it from me: nothing will alienate a reader faster than a book full of insider lingo. When you use jargon with other members of your profession, it creates a feeling of kinship and connection. Unfortunately, it has exactly the opposite effect on lay readers, who will feel distanced by it, as well as confused, talked down to, or turned off. There’s always a way to put it in plain English that makes sense to more people.

4. Your words sound stiff or generic.

Think about how you speak, feel and move when you’re with your best friends, the ones who adore you. You’re at ease, your wittiest and most charming version of yourself, right? Now imagine your friends leave the room and a grim interrogator takes their place, with the sole purpose of finding fault with everything you say, do and maybe even wear. Are you cracking jokes and waxing eloquent now? Hardly. You’re going to hush up and play it safe. You’re going to second guess yourself, so even your upbeat banter will come across a little forced and inauthentic. It’s exactly the same with your writing. An uptight writing voice is a dead giveaway that you’ve allowed your harshest imaginary critics to become more real and important to you than your readers.

Kick those critics out of your head while you work. You aren’t writing this book for them. Sure, you want to be accurate and original, but that doesn’t mean you have to write a book that only a handful of elite experts will understand or relate to. You could write the world’s cleverest book, with the most credible research, nuanced context and precise terminology, but it will be a flop if it doesn’t hit home with the readers you’re trying to reach. Put bluntly, no industry bigwig is going to do your book the honour of ripping it to shreds if nobody is buying it.

Instead, be a translator of ideas. By bringing that arcane knowledge to the masses in language they can understand, you can make a lasting impact on the world. And if impressing your peers really matters to you, what better way to accomplish that than by becoming a widely beloved bestselling author with thousands of fans?

Finding Your Ideal Reader

When I asked my author client to tell me who, specifically, he was most afraid of being criticized by, he immediately rattled off a vivid description of his super-smart peers and the pundits in his industry known for the most blistering critiques. His mental image of these people was so sharp, I could practically see and hear them myself.

When asked to describe the reader he was trying to help with his book, the same author could only talk about his audience in very general and vague terms. He talked about what they needed, and what he hoped to share with them, but couldn’t get a clear picture of them as people.

As this author sits down to write his book, who do you think is peering over his shoulder? The critic, etched so sharply in the author’s imagination that he can practically smell his breath, or an anonymous phantom reader who he can’t call to mind at all? No wonder he was getting tongue-tied at the keyboard. Writing for your critics is like getting embroiled in a long-winded argument in the corner at a party while the people you really want to spend time with are yukking it up in the kitchen. Ditch the bore and go find your friends!

Exercise: Are You Guilty of Defensive Writing?

To determine whether you’re writing defensively, first conjure up a mental image of your harshest potential critics. You probably don’t need to work too hard at this: most of us are painfully aware of the judges and critics in our lives. Even if we don’t know them personally, we know what they think and what they sound like when they’re tearing strips off someone. Notice whether a specific person comes to mind, whether that’s a New York Times book reviewer or your dad. 

Now try to conjure up a mental image of your ideal reader. This ideal reader is someone who not only needs the information that you have to share, but who is also excited to learn it, and believes in you as their source of information. This person genuinely likes you and is predisposed to become a bona fide fan. 

How clearly can you imagine each of these figures? Do they feel real to you, either as actual individuals or vivid imaginary characters? Can you see their faces and hear their comments in your mind? Notice whether one is more substantial and sharply defined than the other.

If your ideal reader is harder to access than your critic, you need to strengthen your sense of them so they can loom largest in your awareness. Choose an individual to represent your archetypal ideal reader. This could be a friend or family member, a client, or even a TV character. The important thing is that you feel you understand them and know how they think and speak.

Cultivate a “relationship” with this reader by sticking their picture onto your wall, and imagining that they are watching over you while you write, and offering their feedback. Make them matter to you. Ask them what they think of this or that idea in your book. If your archetypal ideal reader is based on an actual person who you know in real life, you might even choose to have a discussion with them about your book. Find out what aspects of your ideas matter most to them, what kind of language resonates with them. By doing this, you will ensure that the book you’re writing is one that will truly support and satisfy the readers who matter most. For help with finding your ideal reader, check out our guide.

I’d love to hear from you about your own ideal reader. Is he or she real to you? Who are they based on? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Maggie Langrick

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