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Respect Your Audience

A writer who wants to lead an audience towards a conclusion must refrain from clipping on a leash and pulling too hard. Being human, the audience is likely to resist being told what to think unless already perfectlyin tune with the writer's thinking ... and how often does that happen?

A writer who is very close to a subject being written about may fail to notice that the facts presented are open to alternative interpretations. If the writer's interpretation is presented as the only logical or only possible view, readers whose interpretations differ—possibly a considerable majority of the audience—could be irritated, or offended, or worse. As Sherlock Holmes said, in A Study in Scarlet, "I ought to know by this time that when a fact appears opposed to a long train of deductions it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation."

Techniques to Use and to Avoid
A good approach is to lay out the facts in the most logical and cogent manner possible, then trust the reader to draw the appropriate conclusions. This technique is particularly applicable to fiction writing, in which character and setting are demonstrated by description, conversation, and situation. One hallmark of a less-developed fiction writer is dependence on narrative that bluntly tells the reader—in a sentence or two—what to think of a character or living space, instead of providing evidence to draw the reader to the desired conclusion in longer descriptive or situational passages. For example, rather than say "The Smiths had low-class tastes", the writer might describe how the Smith family's house was decorated.

When conclusions must explicitly be stated, make sure that the presentation is neutral and respects the independence of the reader to take them or to leave them. Trust to both your power of persuasion and your audience's common sense.

Avoid making value judgements based on certain facts or conclusions. Values are best judged by each reader independently. For example, a newspaper story leads off with the statements: "Students at Smith High School achieved the highest test scores of all the high schools in town. The school is also consistently rated "better than most" by a majority of its graduates." Do not follow up by a statement such as: "Smith High School is the best in the city." The question that is sure to be asked is: "Best at what?" Smith may be the best academically (or maybe it is simply located in an affluent neighbourhood). Maybe other schools have better remedial reading programs, sports participation, or drama and chess clubs. Value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Avoid placing the reader on your side of an us-versus-them statement: "We now can see that....", "We recommend that...." Statements like these vaguely imply the superiority of the "we" (author) who is dictating to the "they" (reader). Rewrite the statements to emphasize the benefits of agreeing with the conclusions or advice being presented. For example, rather than use "We recommend that the Whizzbang be placed on a hard, flat surface", try "For best operation, place the Whizzbang on a hard, flat surface."

When to Force the Issue
Finally, ignore most of the preceding advice when writing cautions or warnings about hazardous materials, products, or processes. In these cases, you must be blunt and explicit about the hazard; you must ensure that the reader will understand the consequences of failing to heed the good advice being provided (value judgement); and you must emphasize the credibility of the "we" (expert) who is giving advice to the "they" (assumed novice) by stating credentials, as appropriate.

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