Your reader is quite different from you

Imagine you’ve been working on something for months, years. Really, not even that long, even just entire days. Something that takes up all of your headspace, that is, in a literal accounting-of-time sense, your life.

Your life is everything to you and, in turn, it’s only natural to believe that others should be inclined to ascribe it value the way that you do.

This is a trap that nearly every maker of things falls into, whether that thing is writing, a business, software, collectible stamps, whatever. The harsh reality is that most people don't care about what you're doing. Not because they want to hurt your feelings; it's simply because their life and their priorities are more important to them than whatever it is you're trying to sell them.

Matthew Butterick captures this perfectly in one of the opening sections to Butterick’s Practical Typography:1

…you have to surmount the difference between your primary perspective as a writer and a simulated perspective as a reader.

“But every writer is also a reader—I end up reading the text several times while I’m rewriting it.” In a mechanical sense, yes, you’re reading the text. But you’re not reading it for the same reasons as your readers will: to learn and possibly be persuaded.

Always be asking yourself: what does my reader want? Because your reader is quite different from you:
Unfortunately, professional writers sometimes imagine that the comparison looks like this:
The only reader who might match that description is your mother.

Typography has to be oriented to actual readers, not idealized ones. Writers can get attached to idealized readers because they’re easier to please. That’s no surprise—they don’t exist.

Don’t be lazy. Work hard to see your text as an actual reader will. You won’t get it perfectly right. But a rough approximation is better than none at all.

Mon, Oct 30, 2023

  1. Apologies for the screenshots. This is a new website, and I'm still designing tables.