The Use of You

In many fields of nonfiction, authors combine a mixture of facts and theories to create a series of convincing points. The art of persuasion needs to be employed because you are staking out new ground, going beyond accepted norms. Depending on how many facts you marshal to your cause, you may need to win your arguments through a more conversational method.

Of the narrative weapons at your disposal is one that addresses the reader directly: you. An example can be seen in the previous paragraph. I used it to focus the reader's attention. As an editor, one of my jobs is to motivate authors to be better. Using “you” is intended to grab them by the lapels: come on, get off your duff. Or, I’m not talking about some mythical author here; how about what you do?

This style works when the writing is a call to action. That’s why “you” is used so often in such categories as self-help, health, and business. The author is trying to spur the reader to break old habits, or extend their participation in new ways such as pilates. Readers are supposed to respond to a summons.  

Using “you” works less well in other contexts. While it adds immediacy, it also risks loss of credibility as an expert. If an author has amassed a preponderance of evidence for a theory, the facts alone will tip the scales in most readers’ minds. In this case, “you” may feel ingratiating. That’s because within an arsenal of facts, a direct appeal to the reader may seem weak by comparison. The facts speak for themselves.

That negative points up the need for balance in a narrative. Notice in the past two paragraphs, “you” wasn’t used in direct address at all. I wanted the reader to feel that they are filled with facts. With this neutral approach, the reader is pulled along by the logic of the argument. This observation is very similar to the principle that a nonfiction writer should avoid the use of “I” in exposition. A sentence with the word “I” is more of an opinion. Is that what you want to express a particular point?

Exercise: One key to making “you” work is using it consistently. Because of its in-your-face nature, it looks peculiar when it appears only occasionally. You can just hear the reader saying, Oh, what? I’m supposed to participate? If it is used regularly, though, say in the opening and closing sections of every chapter, the reader will accept it as part of the narrative’s rhythm.

“Even the gods are moved by the voice of entreaty.”

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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