For book writing, where is the line between informal and distracting?

For more than a decade, I’ve been imploring nonfiction authors to be more direct and more familiar. As an editor, though, I need to draw the line between informal and annoying. So consider this advice for writers and editors hoping to be friendly and engaging, but not creepy and distracting.

The biggest problem is still stilted language

Authors trained by academic writing teachers still tend to edge into prof-speak. If you create excessive distance with the reader by asserting your intellectual superiority, it’s unlikely they’ll feel connected enough to stick with your advice. You know, text like this:

It has come to my attention that traditional marketing paradigms may be in need of a Foucaultian reimagining. Consider seven trends for which evidence has been accumulated. First, media fragmentation continues to creep forward, casting in doubt the original Ogilvy-style focus on style over substance and necessitating a quantitative analytical approach to all creative endeavors, not least the artful practice of subtle persuasion. Second, . . .

(Geeze, that was hard for me to write.)

The easiest cure for the tendency to write this way is to print out an image of your typical reader and attach it to your monitor where you can see it always. Now imagine yourself writing to that person. What would you say to them?

The simplest way this changes nonfiction writing is to introduce the words “we” and “you” in far more places, writing directly to the reader about what they should do (for example, “This will help you to see marketing in a new way”) and engaging them in a common reality (for example, “We all have a tendency to focus on reach, because it’s easier.”).

This direct writing style also encompasses a reduction in passive voice, shorter paragraphs, and shorter sentences. All can make the writing more engaging.

Should you just write like you talk? There are limits.

One way to get authors into this more engaging mode is to tell them to “Write like you talk.” Some even find it beneficial to dictate the first draft, rather than typing it.

But while “Write like you talk” can help loosen stiff writing, it has its limits.

For example, writing obviously shouldn’t be peppered with filler words like “you know,” “uhh,” and the ubiquitous “like.” It shouldn’t meander back and forth in search of a point, and it shouldn’t be repetitive.

But even if you recognize the need to be logical and for the most part, grammatical, informal writing has seductions that you ought to resist.

How to draw the line between informal and inappropriate

When I’m editing an informal writer, I do everything I can to preserve the writer’s voice. If they want to sound that way, it’s not my job to drag them back to a neutral tone — in fact, it’s the opposite.

That said, I need to keep them from making mistakes that will break the spell their writing is casting on the reader. I need to flag mistakes and weird choices that will lose readers.

My rule of thumb is simple:

“If a writing choice is going to make readers say ‘huh?’ and wonder what the heck is going on, you should change it.”

Here are some of the elements that set of my “huh?” detector:

  • Excessive use of exclamation points.
  • Any words in ALL CAPS, underline, or bold (except for headings). In books, use italic instead.
  • Non-word words like “gonna,” kinda,” and “sorta.”
  • Other misspellings.
  • Emojis.
  • Excessive and gratuitous use of profanity (unless you’re James Fell).
  • Subject verb agreement problems.
  • Weird metaphors that won’t make sense to most people in the audience.
  • References to pop culture that aren’t familiar to most people in the audience.
  • Rambling.
  • Factual errors.
  • Failure to credit sources.
  • Inaccurate direct quotes.
  • Excessive descriptions of personal experience and emotions (except for memoirs).

My general objection to these affectations is, “This is too cute.” Once the author realizes how distracting their choices may be, they generally agree to make changes.

On the other hand, here are some things that I think add charm to more informal writing, and where I rein in my editorial instincts:

  • Violations of less obligatory grammatical rules, such as commas splices, sentence fragments, and run-on sentences. And, using “like” where “as” would be more correct (for example, “Should you write like you talk?”). A copy editor will reflexively correct these problems, but I’d allow them if the author is using them to generate a specific tone and connection with the reader.
  • Judicious use of personal experience and emotions.
  • Judicious use of profanity.
  • Judicious use of exclamation points.
  • Judicious use of ellipses (. . .) both within and at the end of sentences, where they help maintain the tone.
  • Charming use of em dashes (–) and parentheticals to break up text in ways that a persnickety copy editor might be tempted to delete.
  • Capitalizing important words, unless used so often that it becomes an affectation.
  • Starting sentences with “Now,” “And,” or similar words (but if the prose is just as good without them, I still recommend deleting them).

As you can see from my distinction between “excessive” and “judicious,” this is very much a value judgment. It requires a conversation with the author about what they’re trying to do and how people will react to they write.

The author and editor need to work together to maintain a tone and set of changes that effectively connect with the reader on a personal and emotional level, but aren’t so distracting that they interrupt that connection.

The pedants and copy editors among my readers my be horrified. But we need more books like this — and fewer stilted textbooks.

So I’ll keep working with authors dedicated to informal and engaging prose, and try to keep them from undermining their purpose by being too cute.

Because editing isn’t about applying rules. It’s about maximizing meaning and engagement while eliminating waste and distraction — especially when the tone is informal.

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