Am I Really With You?

I was writing the other day about nonfiction writers getting carried away, and one of the reasons is using the word “we” too often. I’d like to explore that topic further, from the standpoint of a reader who might not want to be included in the author’s gang. I paid money for the book, right? It ‘s supposed to help me. I didn’t sign up to become part of a tribe.

The tactic originated as part of making speeches, I’m sure. When you’re up at a podium, you’re trying to sell an audience on your ideas. Your fervor will carry the day, and one way to win over the masses is including them as part of the cause, making them feel they are participating. This process can be likened to a school pep rally—for adults who should know better than to fork over an outrageous sum to attend the event.

In a book, this form of exhortation has a useful purpose. It makes the topics being discussed more immediate to the reader. Any book will cover a wide range of subjects, and a portion of them are universal. In a book about buying a house, we should all understand the importance of points when refinancing a mortgage. We all should know that Zillow derives an individual house’s price from the sales of houses in its neighborhood. “We” are truly all together when the topics cover all readers.

Authors make their mistake when they extend this nice effort to include people into areas that are specialized. If we are talking about real estate in Arizona, and I live in Massachusetts, I’m not part of the “we” that discusses the importance of water rights. It’s annoying for me to be roped into a discussion that is of remote interest at best. Worse, it distances such a reader from the book in general, because now I’m aware the author is just making a pitch.

This is a reason why examples are useful. If the author got out of their lazy armchair, where “we” is so easy and cozy, and delivers an example of the Fosters, who live in Tucson and found their stream poisoned by a new development, the reader now can participate in another fashion. I know this could happen to me, in another guise, since developers are universally unscrupulous. But I don’t feel irritated that I have only a vague idea what an arroyo is.

Exercise: Do a universal search of the word “we” in your manuscript. When you find each one, check the context in which it is being used. If you are making a claim that truly does embrace all of your readers, you can leave it alone. If you are addressing only a sector of the audience, see if you can replace it with language that acknowledges that portion of readers that are bystanders.

“Who cares about the clouds when we're together? Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather.”
—Dale Evans

Copyright @ 2019 John Paine

No comments:

Post a Comment

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.