November 23rd, 2008 by Bob Bly
It pains me to say it, but a nonfiction book author I greatly admire, the late John Jerome, said something in his book about writing, which I am now reading, that I believe is almost totally wrong.
In “The Writing Trade” (Penguin), Jerome said: “I’ve always felt that any piece of writing is about writing first, before it is about whatever the subject matter is supposed to be.”
I disagree. To me, the most important elements of nonfiction writing are, in this order:
1. The audience: Who is the reader? What do they want or need to know?
2. The topic: the product, lesson, idea, skill, subject matter, etc.
3. The content: are the facts there? accurate? in an order that makes sense? does it answer the reader’s questions and tell her what she wants to know?
4. The writing: is it clear, well organized, clean, well reasoned?
I agree with Michael Masterson, who says “Great writing is a good idea cleanly expressed.”
I always put my reader first. My subject second.
I don’t think MY type of nonfiction writing — how-to and marketing copy — is ever about the writing itself.
If I’ve done my job. The writing is essentially invisible. It doesn’t deflect the reader’s attention from the story or content to the writing itself.
I think a dwindling group of literate readers (me included) can still appreciate reading a genuine prose stylist.
But our demand, time, and attention span for “fine writing” is shrinking with each passing year.
So when you write, you should write for the reader.
And not to show off your eloquence or style to others — yes?
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