Strategies for earning your readers’ trust
One of my basic operating principles as an editor of nonfiction is that you, the nonfiction writer, want your readers to trust you—trust you enough to engage with your ideas and, hopefully, come to agree with them. Trust comes partly from your credentials and those of your sources. But in an immediate, felt sense, it also comes from the clarity and coherence of your writing.
When you give them all the information needed to enter into your world, in the order it’s most easily assimilated, the reader can relax, absorb, and engage responsively with your ideas. You are taking care of them. Conversely, when you make the reader backtrack to the previous page to remember what you’re talking about, stop to puzzle out tricky sentence constructions, or spend too long wondering why you’re bringing something up, you’re making them work too hard. You’re yanking them out of your argument, out of your world, and breaking that sense of care and trust.
Many drafts that come to me for developmental or line editing push the reader away in some manner.
So let’s talk about some things you can do while revising to help your writing pull people in and build trust.
Choose words that invite your reader in
Obfuscation keeps your readers away from your ideas.
Keeping the reader out, or keeping the reader in suspense, may be appropriate techniques for some forms of creative nonfiction. Many academic disciplines seem to live and die by obscurantist prose, and you might feel a professional need to fit in (I say screw that, but I’m an editor, not an academic…though I am married to one).
But the raison d’être of most nonfiction is to inform, so choose words and sentence structures that help your reader get informed. Welcome your reader to your prose. This in turn welcomes them to your ideas and hastens and increases their understanding. Note: This is definitely not a call to dumb down or deaden your writing, or to make it patronizing or hand-holdy! Welcoming prose is often the most beautiful. The straightforward is not always simple. Surprises and silliness are a pleasure in the right places.
As you revise, aim for word choice and sentence structure that are approachable and straightforward without sacrificing interest and intent.
Bonus: A reader who understands and is interested in your work is more likely to share it with other readers.
Support the real point
Most writers I know are overwriters. You just keeping writing, writing, writing—many more words than you need—until all your ideas are on the page, then you edit it down later. It’s a great technique. I’m an overwriter; this newsletter went through, like, five drafts. My partner, an overwriter and an excellent self-editor, swears by writing with a drink to hand and editing sober, which, if you drink, is solid advice for helping those words get on the page.
Being an overwriter means you often don’t discover the magical thing you’re really trying to say until you’ve finished writing your first—or fourth—draft. Here’s the trick: once you discover what you’re really trying to say, you have to go back through your manuscript and revise so that the text prepares for, supports, and follows from that point. (Not from what you thought your point was when you started the draft.)
I know, I know, you’re sick of your manuscript already. But don’t skip this step! Your reader needs it if they’re going to understand your insights.
Give your readers a grocery cart
People assimilate information better when it connects to something they already know and when they understand why you’re telling them something. Confirm that you’ve shared both your topic (what you’re talking about) and your point (what you want to say about it) close to the beginning of each relevant section.
I drew this analogy for a client last fall: You know how in the pre-COVID era you’d sometimes go to the grocery store to pick up just one or two things and decide you don’t need a cart, but as you go through the aisles you end up getting more and more…and suddenly your arms are full, a box of cereal just thwapped on the floor, and you realize you really should have gotten a cart after all? Don’t let your readers feel that way about the pieces of information you’re giving them. Instead, give them a conceptual cart as soon as they enter the store, so they have a way to hold and understand all the details.
You can accomplish this even with a light hand on metadiscourse (e.g., “In chapter seven I’ll show that…”) and its subset, signposting (e.g., “I have three arguments about this.”) As Steven Pinker writes in his excellent book The Sense of Style, “The problem with thoughtless signposting is that the reader has to put more work into understanding the signposts than she saves in seeing what they point to, like complicated directions for a shortcut which take longer to figure out than the time the shortcut would save. It’s better if the route is clearly enough laid out that every turn is obvious when you get to it” (39).
Here are a couple of examples of how you can guide your reader without explicit signposts:
- Instead of “This chapter covers the factors that cause brands to rise and fall in popularity,” you can write, “What makes a brand’s popularity rise and fall?”
- Instead of “The first topic to be discussed is the motivation for Smith’s actions,” you can try, “We begin with the motivation for Smith’s actions.” Or even, “Let’s begin with Smith’s motivation.”
Connect for coherence
Is the relationship between each proposition logical, or explained? How explicitly you have to explain the connections between ideas, and how explicitly you have to create arcs of coherence for your readers, depends in part on your intended audience and how much they know.
Try to imagine yourself as one of your intended readers. Keep in mind that they probably know less than you think: you know your material really well, but even readers who are experts in your field haven’t been living inside your brain. They won’t know everything you do about your unique take on the topic. So chances are good that you need more connective tissue than you think you do.
Connective tissue can be shaped in many ways. “Examples, explanations, violated expectations, elaborations, sequences, causes, and effects are arcs of coherence that pinpoint how one statement follows from another” (Pinker 160). The Sense of Style gives lucid explanations of arcs of coherence and many, many more concrete tools for making your writing more cogent. Pinker’s personal values might be suspect, but this is a fabulous book; it changed how I think about writing and editing, and I highly recommend reading it.
Ask someone from your intended audience to read the manuscript or, if that’s not an option, read it aloud to yourself. Where do they (or you) stumble as they read? Flag each instance, then go back in and see if you can figure out why they stumbled (or have them tell you, when they know). How can you rearrange information, provide something new, delete something extraneous, or tinker with the connective tissue between sentences to smooth out the flow?
Revising for clarity in these ways will help your reader understand your ideas more quickly and thoroughly. It will build the trust that helps them buy in to those ideas. And it will make your writing more compelling, another of the three Cs—clean, clear, and compelling—I edit for.
Questions about these strategies? Want to talk about how to apply them to your current project? Get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.