Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tech Speak or Not Tech Speak

Ever noticed how popular those "For Dummies" books are? Ever noticed how many of them there are! There's a Dummies book for just about any subject you can think of and for a few you couldn't have thought of (but someone else did).

Know why they're so popular? Because anyone, for the most part, can understand them. Why else would you pay $22 for a Dummies book when the software program you bought came with its own 400 page manual? Some manuals are so laden with technical jargon and goobledeegook that you'll get a headache just trying to understand the index, let alone the instructions.
You can convert the perimeter of the stroke of a selected path into a closed path. The resulting path creates the illusion of a path with no fill and a stroke that is the same as the original path object's fill.
Okaaaay then. That's perfectly clear. Take two aspirin and pass me the Dummies book.

So, how does this apply to those of us not writing the For Dummies books? Am I telling you to dumb down your writing?

No, no. I'm saying make your writing clear and understandable, without sacrificing the flow and flavor of your writing and story. But, yes, you do have to consider your audience.

If you're writing a piece that will run in a technical magazine or a specialized journal, then you can get away with jargon and insider-terminology. You won't need to describe a 757 and list its specs if you're writing an article for a pilots' magazine. In fact, if you did, your readers might consider it an insult.

If you're writing a fiction piece for a magazine that goes out to retired Navy personnel, you don't need to explain the slang. They know it. They use it. They may even be it.

But, if you're writing for the average audience, the general public, you may have to demonstrate unfamiliar terms or use them in a context that makes them understandable. You'll notice I said may.

A few years back I read Birth of Blue Satan by Patricia Wynn. I don't usually read historical mysteries; I prefer modern-day settings. But Pat's a friend and I'd heard people raving about the book. And they were right. I really enjoyed the book and looked forward to more in the series.

But, back to the point. In the book, there's mention of a disease that one particular person has. That disease is called the King's Evil. Now, I hadn't a clue what the King's Evil would be called today. And the author doesn't tell you within the concept of the story! Oh sure, you can find out afterward by reading the Author's Notes, but during the book, unless you're a medical historian, you don't know what disease that character has.

And, the kicker is, you don't need to know.

All the reader needs to understand is that the character has the disease and what it's doing to his body. Telling the reader that the King's Evil is actually Disease X (don't want to spoil it for any of you planning on reading the book) would only disrupt the flow of the book.

So, you have to figure out who your readers are going to be. Plus, you have to decide what to tell and what to save. . . what to explain and what to demonstrate . . . what to go into detail about and what to just toss into the wind and see if it sails.

Remember, though, unless you're writing a book in the For Dummies series, you're not writing for dummies.


  1. Patricia Wynn7/20/2007 3:44 PM

    Thanks so much for reading The Birth of Blue Satan and talking about it on your blog. I'm so glad you liked it, but I especially appreciate your take on not writing for dummies. One of the reasons I use a small press is because I got tired of the "dumbing down" of American popular fiction. This is not to say that the major publishers do not put out some wonderful books, but authors are discouraged from certain content -- unfamiliar vocabulary, foreign words, dialect -- many things that enriched the fiction I grew up on. It was the novels I read as a child that introduced me to worlds outside my own and began my education about Europe, language, and English history. If books had been dumbed down then, I'm not sure how much I would understand today. It's a mistake for publishers to underestimate the ability of readers to process new information. I resent the condescension that sometimes goes into editing decisions.

    Patricia Wynn
    Author of the Blue Satan Mystery Series

  2. Hello, Patricia. So good to hear from you. Thank you for your comments. You hear people say what they like about small presses, but I hadn't heard anyone comment about the "dumbing down" of popular fiction.


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