Patronising: that’s where you talk down to someone.

The other day, I saw a petrol tanker. It had a sentence painted on the side that said, as far as I can recall:

We take the petrol to the pump so you don’t have to go to the refinery to collect it.

I thought this rather insulted the intelligence of the audience. That’s how you might explain it if a child asked. But if you’re old enough to buy petrol, you’re old enough to understand what a tanker does. A friend’s daughter used to work in the media and often encountered this kind of tone. She brands it infantilisation.

It’s timeworn advice not to think about your audience while you’re writing fiction, but I do think it’s important while editing. Let’s say your character plays a musical instrument. It’s probable your audience would know what a balalaika is, but would they be familiar with a theremin?

If you’re unsure how a passage will be received by an audience, give it to other people. If it’s not clear to the majority of them, can your meaning be shown through dialogue or action rather than plain description? For the balalaika, you might only need the action:

Becky strummed her balalaika every evening, adding a fresh twist to popular rock classics.

Whereas the theremin might need more explanation, done here through dialogue:

An Etherwave-Theremin, assembled from Robert M...
An Etherwave-Theremin, assembled from Robert Moog’s kit: the loop antenna on the left controls the volume while the upright antenna controls the pitch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“What’s that aerial thingy?”
“This? It’s a theremin; it’s what I play.”
“How do you play that?”
“Put your hand near it and it makes a noise.”

Also ask yourself whether something actually needs to be explained. It’s a common habit of beginner writers to overexplain:

Jessica pushed down the door handle and pulled the door towards her. She stepped back as it opened and she saw Fiona in the room. Fiona was sitting in a chair and clasped in her hand a stack of £50 notes. When Jessica looked at her, she raised her eyebrows and opened her mouth wide, knowing she had been caught with the takings from the shop.

Whereas this could be made less flabby by allowing the reader to make the mental leap between actions:

Jessica entered the room. There was Fiona; £50 notes in her hand. The takings from the shop. “This is not what it looks like,” said Fiona.

Notice in the second passage that the focus is on the actions that drive the plot forward. Here, the facial expressions are of little relevance to the story; the reader wants to know what happened to the money. The question of relevance is key to pitching your text at the right level.

If anyone sees that oil truck, please pass on my comments to the company.

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