© 2008 -- 2011 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Thinking about the reader

Here’s the “lead” paragraph from an article for the web I edited the other day:
For some expectant moms, even the slightest ache or pain can trigger a five-star alarm and trip to the doctor, but other pregnant women may well ignore a potentially serious warning sign because they think it is a normal part of pregnancy or they fear of being the girl who cried wolf.
This is from a professional writer with an impressive list of credits, including Woman’s World magazine, Arthritis Today, and the Wall Street Journal. The writer has a graduate degree in journalism, and has won awards for online reporting. I can only assume the writer was having a bad day. (Actually, what I really assumed is that the writer is used to having her work very heavily edited and simply doesn't care.)

That one-sentence paragraph has 52 words and a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 21.7. And can someone please tell me what a five-star alarm is? I know there is a product called a FiveStar Alarm that can be used to detect levels of dangerous gasses. So the writer may have been trying to use a metaphor, but I don’t think it works. I didn’t know there was such a product until I googled it, and I doubt many readers would know either. But what I really wonder is why a writer for whom English is not a second language would turn in an article with the phrase “they fear of being the girl who cried wolf." All that tells me is the writer didn’t bother to read any of the text before turning it in.

S and I were having dinner a few weeks ago with some close friends who are professional communicators like us, and at one point in the discussion the issue was raised about whether or not every assignment was equally important. J, an editor whose work I especially admire, said, “No, some assignments don’t matter. The job is just to get them out there.” Her point was that if an editor or a reporter treated every piece he or she is working on as if it needed to be perfect, the pieces that did truly matter might never get done.

I tend to agree with J. But that’s because I understand she wasn’t saying that there was any excuse for shoddy craftsmanship from a professional. And it doesn’t excuse a professional communicator for not considering the audience. You put out the best you can in the time you have with the attention it deserves. But if it isn’t clear, if it isn’t accurate, if the language isn’t at least used properly, you don’t present it.

If the writer of the one-sentence paragraph had any concern at all for the readers or for the subject matter, the paragraph might have looked like this:

For some expectant moms, the slightest ache or pain triggers a major alarm and a trip to the doctor’s office. But other pregnant women sometimes ignore a potentially serious warning sign. They may think it’s a normal part of pregnancy. Or they may simply not want to be seen as the girl who cried wolf.


  1. Communication in any form is the most difficult of all. All kinds of things play into understanding what someone is trying to convey.

    Have a terrific day. :)

  2. Oh gosh Grandpa, am I ever guilty of this crime!

    I'll be the first to admit that I get way to exuberant with a metaphor that I think is clever.

    Luckily,I have a friend who helps me edit my work. She'll say, "Rene that's a cute metaphor, write it on an index card and file it for later use because it doesn't belong here!"

    I get the praise for being clever and constructive criticism.

    Works for me. :)

    Peace - Rene

  3. I'm leaving this open to read on the plane but won't be able to comment....but wanted to say hi, Grandpa...xo

  4. Insensitive communication is any reader's/listener's nightmare.
    I agree with J too - and feel that it is applicable in all disciplines of work. Most of us normally have more things to do in our worklife than we would ideally like to handle. Everything cannot be perfect. I have found it to be humanly impossible.

  5. I am SO with you on this (as you know).

    Lazy professionals who've ceased to care make me nuts; perhaps because I'm passionate about my writing....

    Comfort Spiral

  6. What a mess that unedited "paragraph" was! Thank goodness for you!

  7. Grandpa, this post reminded me that I am guilty of 52 word sentences.

    I will remember to think about the reader while posting. Thanks for this editing advice.

  8. I like your version best, Grandpa. I read it once and got the message. I read the first paragraph, scratched my head, then had to read it again.

    In my family, "five-star alarm" referred to the chili my father and brother used to make.

  9. That's typical of newspaper journalism: lead paragraph in the inverted pyramid form! One sentence that tries to capture the essence of a story. Frankly, most of these strung-out sentences are passed over by copy editors, perhaps because of deadlines, or simply because of laziness from both writer and editor.

  10. Maybe the writer above was trying for Faulkner!

    Ha! That's a horrible sentence and I'm surprised they sent it along.

    I think one of the most annoying things these days are the large sites like Blogcritics. They have these "editors" to whom things are submitted. But then, they catch error, which makes me believe that for the most part they send things on their way.

    Today, I got a request to edit a first time novel. The writer said she had already set it up with a POD company, but wanted my opinion. This just means, they're not offering editorial advice. But the kicker was that she said it was a 46 page novel!

    Okay, I'll be nice. There are works of short fiction considered novels of around 100 pages. And to be extra nice I will tell you that "Lost In Translation" was a 78 page screenplay!

    But 46 pages? I mean, she needs to mulitply that by at least ten.
    Okay, I'm rambling now. Night night. I'm on my way to Tucson in the morning.