Why you should write for grandmothers and Martians

I open every course I teach by asking participants what they find most difficult about writing. One of the most common things I hear is a lack of confidence when it comes to writing about topics on which the writer isn’t an expert. How can a marketer write knowledgeably about a complex new financial product? Or how can an HR person write clearly and relevantly about a highly specialist role in IT?

My answer usually surprises people: a lack of knowledge is actually a strength, not a weakness. Why? Because the biggest – and most common – mistake that inexperienced writers make is to assume too much knowledge on behalf of their audience. Counterintuitive perhaps, but the less you know about the topic you’re writing about, the more you’re likely to write stuff that will be useful to your reader.

I’ll give you an example. I was recently asked to “spice up” a first draft of some briefing notes about an upcoming art display. The notes were designed to help a non-expert readership talk knowledgably about some paintings to other non-experts – and in doing so encourage them to attend the exhibition.

Written by an art professional, the draft included all the details an art expert would need to understand the exhibition’s significance: the names and nationalities of the featured artists; the dates and titles of the displayed works; and a note about the previous exhibitions that had brought the movement (Neo-Expressionism) to prominence.

Now, like many verbal types, I’m a complete visual illiterate. I get palpitations whenever I enter Tate Modern – and not in a Stendhal syndrome kind of way. More a drowning, I’m-out-of-my-depth-get-me-outta-here-right-now kind of way. I have a left-brained aversion to responding emotionally to – let alone seeing meaning in – shapes and colours. My motto is: “I don’t know much about art, so how on earth am I supposed to know what I like?”

In short, I was the perfect person to zing up some copy about Neo-Expressionism. Because my first question was the one most likely to be asked by anyone who knew nothing about the Neo-Expressionists, and who needed to be persuaded to attend an exhibition of their work: “So, er, what exactly are these paintings like then?”

The nearest the text got to answering this question was to describe the artists as “rebelling against the modernist status quo”. That no doubt gave an art insider an instant idea of what the exhibition covered – and why it was important. But me? Sorry, none the wiser. I’ve no idea what the modernist status quo looks like, let alone a rebellion against it.

A quick Google later and I was able to tell similarly philistine readers that the paintings were large, emotionally raw, and portrayed recognisable objects such as the human body using frenzied brush-work and vivid colours. They sounded quite cool, actually. I might even check the exhibition out myself.

So the lesson is: when writing about any topic, have in mind a reader who knows absolutely nothing about your subject (I’ve heard that many journalists think of grandmothers or Martians). Even better, get a grandmother (or, if you can find one, a Martian) to read your text before you send it anywhere.

Unless, of course, your topic is art – in which case, you know exactly where to come.

2 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Gunter says:

    Dear Clare,

    Having stumbled across this piece, I simply have to share a story about my own late grandmother with you:

    A long time ago, when I had just got into the tough stages of my PhD project, I went home for a weekend at my home near the Alps. My grandmother, a wonderfully warm but thoroughly non-academic old dear, lived in the same house, and on hearing me moan about not finding any time for friends and hobbies, she asked me: “What exactly is your thesis about, dear?”
    Not knowing where to even begin, I said: “Sorry, gran, but I don’t think there is much point in trying to tell you.” — And then she said something which has stayed with me to this day as a piece of wisdom only your elders can impart on you:
    “OK, love, not to worry. But just a thought: if you can’t tell me what you are writing about, maybe you haven’t completely understood it yourself yet?”

    Hard to write this without welling up…

  2. Clare Lynch says:

    What a fabulous story, Gunter – she sounds like a wonderful woman!

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