I stared out at a wall of glum faces. “What’s going on, you guys? Didn’t you like the reading?” The essay at hand was a masterpiece of nuance, one of the most influential pieces in the modern conservationist movement, and I had hoped it would spark a lively and spirited exchange.
“I read it,” said a student in the second row, shrugging. “But I just didn’t relate to it.”
“Unrelatability,” as I have come to think of it, is the kiss of death for many pieces of writing. If your reader can’t relate to what you’ve written, your great ideas and beautiful phrases are moot. But “relatability,” like flow, is a difficult concept to pin down. It took me a five-post series to explore flow (In case you missed them, here they are: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ), and I certainly could write five more.
So, what do readers mean when they say that that “can’t relate” to what you have written? And how can you get more of your readers to relate to what you write?
Before I proceed, a caveat: you can’t please everyone. I would never suggest that writers should pander to their readers’ whims at the expense of their own ideas or integrity. Rather, these tips are designed to help writers correct flaws that may be unnecessarily dampening their readers’ excitement.
“I just can’t relate to it” is reader-speak for dissonance. It’s a vague feeling of unease that prevents the reader from engaging with your writing. Something in your writing has made the readers decide to put a wall between you and them. If writing is like telepathy, as Stephen King suggests in On Writing, then dissonance causes your readers to shut the connection down on their side.
I like to describe this phenomenon using the term “dissonance” because the word denotes an unpleasant sound. One experiences dissonance physically. Similarly, when you find that you can’t relate to a writer, you likely feel repelled on a visceral, if subtle, level.
Remember that “I can’t relate to it” is much less vehement criticism than “I hate it.” This is good, because you can revise and perhaps change your reader’s mind. It’s also bad, however, because it’s hard to pinpoint what about the writing left the reader cold. If your reader could be more specific about what he or she didn’t like about your writing than “I just couldn’t relate to it,” he or she probably would be.
What aspect of your writing could be hitting a sour note in an otherwise lovely song? Here are some likely suspects:
1. Your piece’s topic may not catch the reader’s interest.
2. Your approach to the topic may be too advanced for the reader. Nothing turns a reader off like feeling ideas whooshing over his or her head.
3. Your approach to the topic may not give the reader enough credit. This is the reverse of number 2, and it can happen in two ways. One, the information may be too basic to engage the reader’s interest. Two, and this is far more likely, you may be taking too much time to explain concepts or ideas that are relatively transparent to your reader. If you belabor your points, your reader may feel as though you’re “talking down” to him or her.
4. Your reader may not see a connection between your writing and his or her life experience.
5. Your reader may suspect that you are not presenting an honest and authentic voice.
What can you do to remedy these? Let’s take them one by one.
1. Boring Topic. If your reader finds your topic uninspiring, it’s time to try a more exciting introduction. Why not begin with a provocative question, to spark their curiosity? Or craft an opening anecdote that demonstrates the importance of your topic while entertaining the reader? Present the commonly-held belief about your topic, and then turn the tables with your surprising new take. There are dozens of ways to introduce a topic: choose one that will delight, confound, or challenge your reader.
2. Content Aimed Too High. Many times, we write about topics about which we know a great deal. Perhaps we know a lot about the broad subject area, or perhaps we just know the material we cover in the essay. Either way, it becomes easy to overlook needed explanations or definitions. If you have trouble considering your topic from a non-expert reader’s perspective, then give it to some friends or colleagues and ask them to identify each place they get confused.
If all else fails, consider scaling your content back to a more general topic that would fit your group of readers better.
3. Content Aimed Too Low. Sometimes writers, despite the best intentions, insult their readers by going too slowly. Readers often react poorly to unneeded explanation and details because it implies that the writer does not think well of them. Imagine how you’d feel if you were reading a cookbook recipe that took the time to define and explain what a bowl is, what a spoon is, and what flour is before finally getting down to the first instruction, “spoon flour into bowl,” three pages later? A little annoyed, perhaps.
The most consistent way to combat this is by using an appealing tone. Depending on the specific kind of writing you’re doing, you may benefit from a humble, charming, helpful, or humorous tone. If your reader has a strong, consistent sense that you are a congenial person who appreciates and values the reader’s time, the reader will be more inclined to take explanations in the spirit in which you have written them.
4. Inappropriate Example. For example, you might write something like, “we all know what it’s like to ask a person out and get shot down.” You mean it to be the basis of a funny example, and to many, it is. But to many others, it represents something they can’t relate to (or choose not to relate to).
There are two ways to combat this problem. If you want to use an example, concentrate on topics that you and your readers have in common. This way, most of them will know exactly what you mean. The other method is to qualify the example: instead of “we all know,” try “many of us know.” This way, the readers who don’t have personal experience asking people out can still relate to your example, because they are familiar with the phenomenon in more general terms. Presenting an appropriately qualified statement rather than a sweeping generalization maintains the example’s impact while not alienating readers.
5. Inauthenticity. Readers won’t relate to you if they feel like you’re not relating to them. The best way to relate to your readers better is to get to know them. So consider your audience. Who is likely to read what you have written? How can you make them feel that you have written this with them in mind?
Also, consider giving something of yourself to your readers. You don’t need to divulge personal information, but do share your personality, even in a history paper.