Writing for a particular audience Was: When users want jargon (long, discursive)

Subject: Writing for a particular audience Was: When users want jargon (long, discursive)
From: Emily Berk <emily -at- armadillosoft -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 05 Jun 2002 23:52:19 -0700

Two junior high schools fed students into the high school I attended.

In Honors English, Freshman year, the first paper I turned in came back marked with a B, with red marks ALL over it, but no written explanation.

Turns out, the teacher wanted all essays written in a format she called "Standard English". Which meant: no use of first person, all verbs not in quotations in present tense, a bunch of other stupid, ridiculous rules. Apparently, at the Other Junior High, the one the Intelligent kids attended, they taught them to use Standard English only from a young age. But I had never heard of it before.

When she assigned the essay, the teacher had been under the impression that I was telepathic and that I knew by osmosis that all papers submitted in her class were to be written according to these rules. She did reluctantly agree to share these rules with me.

I went home, outraged, to talk it over with my mother who had been an Elementary School teacher before she decided she needed to actually be paid for her work. What my mom said was, "Well, these are the rules for getting an A in this class with this teacher. They may be stupid, but they are the rules. And now that she's actually told you what they are, if you don't follow them, and you don't get an A, it's your own fault."

I decided to take up the challenge and write for this particular arbitrary and (I thought) stupid audience of one. Got an A in the course.

These many years later, when I re-read the papers I wrote for this course, I still find them pretentious and stilted. But also, because I had to work a little harder than usual to figure out how to express everything not in the first person and in the present tense, I do think the quality of many of the sentences ended up being pretty good.

Obviously, what I learned from the course was not to always write in "Standard English" (standard my foot!), but that I needed to write differently for different audiences.

This may have been the one and only academic lesson I learned in high school.

Since then, I have written for many teachers, for an encyclopedia targeting 8th grade students, for the popular computer press, for reseller magazines, for public relations, for developers, for managers, for marketers, for end-users, for various email lists, etc. And, because of this one experience, I am always highly conscious that each audience will be most receptive to what I have to say if I use an appropriately-calibrated voice.

Not that I am always able to figure out what that voice should sound like first time out. But I do try. And I do try to appreciate feedback on tone even when at first the feedback sounds stupid to me.

Or, in Standard English: Different strokes for different folks is the way this author works in her published written expressions. Now this author is going to persist this data and migrate on out of here.


~ Emily Berk ~
~ On the web at www.armadillosoft.com *** Armadillo Associates, Inc. ~
~ Internet and non-internet application development, project ~
~ management, developer relations and extremely-technical technical ~
~ documentation that developers find useful. ~

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