Audio Version: Click to stream recording of page (June 2020):
We don’t tend to trust people who don’t respect us and don’t wish us well. Regardless of how formal or informal or how intimate or distanced the argument is, if the reader feels the writer is disrespectful and doesn’t care about the reader’s perspective or experience, the reader will lose trust.
Conversely, if the reader feels that the writer understands the reader's perspective and uses that understanding to make the experience of reading the argument as straightforward and intellectually pleasant as possible, the reader will trust the writer more. Goodwill and respect distinguish a good argument from a rant which gives vent to the arguer’s feelings while ignoring what readers might need.
Here are a few concrete actions writers can take to show goodwill and respect toward readers:
- Express ideas in a clear and straightforward way. Making things clear often takes a lot of mental sweat. Readers generally do not appreciate having to do the work of sorting out unnecessarily convoluted sentences.
- Guide readers through the ideas with clear transitions. Showing how each part of the essay relates to the next also takes mental sweat on the part of the writer. Readers will appreciate not being left dangling at the end of one paragraph, trying to figure out why the writer switches topics in the next and how the two topics are connected.
- Tell the reader what to expect from the structure of the argument. If there will be several parts to the argument, readers may feel supported when the writer offers a clear map of what is coming. An example might be "I will first describe how neurons carry messages from the brain to other parts of the body before I explain how those messaging pathways can be disrupted in neurological disorders." Telling the readers what the writer plans to do in first person is also called the “I” of method because the "I" is used not to describe personal experience but to describe the writer's methods in the text itself. If there is more than one writer, as in scientific papers, of course, this would become the "we" of method. Of course, too much description of what the writer is planning to do can become boring and can get in the way of the momentum of the argument.
- Anticipate and answer likely questions. This shows respect because the writer is giving the reader credit in advance for intelligence, curiosity, and critical thinking. One way to do this is to refer to the reader directly as “you,” as in “you may well ask.” It can also be done in third person, as in the phrases "some will wonder" and "this raises the question of...."
- Correct misconceptions respectfully. If a writer is frustrated with popular misconceptions on a topic, they should give the reader the benefit of the doubt and politely assume that such daft misconceptions belong to others. We can refer to those who hold the misconception in the third person in a phrase like "some may assume that" rather than targeting the reader with a "you may be assuming that..."