This past week, Dorothea sent a link to FriendFeed on the art of writing and designing for readers. It’s called In Defense of Readers, and it’s one of those pieces of writing that pulls me in, engrosses me completely, makes time stand still, and then leaves me thinking about it for days afterward. I loved everything about it, but two very different things keep coming back to me as I cook dinner, walk across campus, or drive through town. I want to make sure this space reflects those principles to the best of my ability, and I loved the reminder that the best writing assumes the best of its readers.
The blog template portion of my reflections probably isn’t very interesting. Little by little I’m tweaking small things like line spacing, distribution of white space, and figuring out how to keep the sidebar from competing for eye-time with the body text. (Just as a side note, I’ve realized that for the kind of writing I do, the sidebar and the navigational function it represents isn’t the most important piece of the site, and therefore shouldn’t have the coveted left side.) I know just enough CSS to mess up a good template, and I use it so rarely that every time I do, I have to relearn it. But little by little I’m tweaking the site to allow for easier reading. And this challenge is enough fun that I’m ignoring the little voice in my head that screams, “But everyone’s reading this in their feed readers anyway! Who cares what the site looks like!!”
The article’s respect for the reader, though, has much farther reaching implications. It stretches into the far corners of my experience to touch everything from interpersonal relations to prose. For example, my co-workers and I were talking over dinner about how the best managers are those that assume that their employees have good intentions and want to do well. This assumption helps them approach difficult situations in constructive ways, and goes a long way toward helping employees to actually do well. I realized that this was analogous to the epiphany I had in graduate school when I realized that the best articles and essays assumed that those who did or would disagree with them had arrived at their conclusions in perfectly reasonable ways. Up until that point, I’d thought the best “argue against those who disagree with you” portions of my papers should be point by point deconstructions of my opponent’s arguments with the goal of showing how much smarter I was than they were. But as it turns out, in the real world this just makes people think you’re arrogant and a bit of a rhetorical show-off.
No, what I like about Mandy Brown’s writing is that she didn’t take the easy attacks on either side of the debate about reading online vs reading in glorious everyone-knows-this-is-aesthetically-more-pleasing print. Her writing could be appreciated by those who think books are the only way to go and those who rarely curl up with anything other than a laptop. It embodied the kind of attitude toward potentially disagreeing readers that I’ve always hoped I could pull off, if I tried very hard. And by pulling this off, Brown’s writing was not only “In Defense of Readers,” but it also defended its readers from the gratuitous barbs that might have prevented them from hearing her underlying arguments.