4.02.2019

The Reader’s Right to Choose

When writing a self-help book, an author engages in the art of persuasion. Direct address, using the word “you” over and over, helps in this process, since it addresses the reader as though they are sitting across from the author. That style also accords with the author’s usual style, since so many self-help books are filled with instructions written down rather than given orally in a training program of whatever sort.

What works well spoken aloud does not always translate to words down on paper. There are several reasons for this problem. First, written words do not carry the same intonation that a teacher can use to soften what may come off as a command, not to mention an easy smile as it is said. A second issue is repetition. Whereas a repeated instruction functions well live, since call-and-response is so much a part of human interaction, the same command can be annoying when it is read too many times.

The most important reason stems from the difference between a live interaction and the reading experience. If you choose to join a class, usually paying money for the service, you don’t mind so much being hectored. That’s what you’re there for: to improve a flaw you know you have. A person reading in the quiet of a room has a different level of commitment. First, the money expended is a fraction of that for a class. That’s not to mention that the book was chosen from an entire bookshelf of similar titles. If the reader grows weary of your book, there’s always another book on self-improvement.

Beyond these limitations lies a third: the right to choose. A reader is engaged mentally with a book. That means their mind more actively responds to the words. Part of that engagement may tip in an affirmative direction, but part may also challenge what is being read. It’s not a social interaction, where being cowed works—it’s for your own good. Rather, it’s a private meeting of minds. You may be granted the license of being an authority, but if the teacher is too mean, the book is closed.

This is why I caution authors against using commands such as: “Yes, do it now.” “Pick up a pencil and do the exercise. Now.” That sort of approach leads to repetition of the commands after every exercise. The command starts to feel sharp, angry, and the reader may not think the exercise was that great anyway. You have denied readers the right to think for themselves.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for any imperative sentences. Each time ask yourself: in the neutrality of the printed page, is this coming off right? Do I sound like a jerk? If you’re really struggling to separate yourself from the writing, have a friend read it and see how they react.

“Your position never gives you the right to command. It only imposes on you the duty of so living your life that others can receive your orders without being humiliated.”
—Dag Hammarskjold

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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