Do you write to influence opinions or behavior? If so, you might bring the reader into the conversation.
How do you address the reader? Do you:
- Use the pronoun you (as I did leading into this point)
- Aim for quaint or charming with dear reader?
- Get some distance with one (as one does)
- Put yourself in the same boat with we?
Often, this decision comes down to personal style or the conventions of your genre. You may even establish a habit. But don’t get too comfortable with your choices.
Consider what the reader needs for the specific situation.
The nouns or pronouns you select affects the reader’s inner experience.
- Do you want them to picture themselves as they read? Are you trying to pull them in?
- Do you want to form a stronger connection with the reader, getting them on your side?
- Would they benefit from a broader perspective on a personal situation?
There’s no single right answer. Use the right pronoun (or noun) for the job.
Close to you…
The pronouns you and we narrow the distance between the author’s (or narrator’s) voice and the reader. They invite the reader into a shared thought space.
If you want people to envision themselves in a situation, address the reader as you. (That’s why you pops up everywhere in marketing copy.)
For example, here’s a “benefit statement” using a third-person perspective:
When a writer learns to work with their brain instead of against it, they will get more done and have more fun.
Ho hum. Changing it to second-person singular (you) makes the benefit feel more immediate.
When you learn to work with your brain instead of against it, you will get more done and have more fun.
This second option also avoids the messy issue of using his/her or their as the sentence continues. Even if you embrace the singular they, “their brain” looks wrong.
We and us combine immediacy with intimacy. This can subtly forge a stronger connection to the reader. I do this all the time when sharing lessons learned about writing:
Let’s imagine that we have within us two distinct writing systems: the Muse and the Scribe.
This passage describes a universal experience and also claims a connection between the author and the reader.
Adding distance when needed
Pronouns like one or titles like the reader seems more formal than you because they create a greater distance between the writer and the reader.
Sometimes, adding distance is compassionate and more effective.
This insight comes from reading the book Chatter by Ethan Kross. He describes how we can become immersed in situations that trigger our negative inner chatter. In these cases, readers benefit from distance, not immersion.
You can help provide that perspective by shifting viewpoint.
For example, consider this passage about Imposter Syndrome:
When you have Imposter Syndrome, you believe at some level that you’re not a real writer. This sense of inadequacy can prevent you from writing and shut down your Muse.
If the reader is prone to Imposter Syndrome, the words might activate a memory of the emotional experience. They might then experience it again. (The brain is strange that way.)
Switching the subject can change their perspective.
When people experience Imposter Syndrome, they believe at some level that they’re not real writers. This sense of inadequacy can prevent them from writing and shut down the Muse.
When reading that passage, the reader might now see themselves as a member of a large group of people who experience the situation. This expanded perspective may make them feel more open to possible solutions.
If you are willing to share your own experiences for the sake of a deeper connection with the reader, you could switch to we.
Writers tend to worry about being crazy or unusual, and it’s reassuring to realize that we share the same issues.
That sentence uses both the third-person writers and the second-person-plural we. On a subtle level, it offers both a broader perspective and a sense of belonging.
Experiment with pronouns in revision
Look for the pronouns when revising a piece. Experiment with changing them and noticing how the tone or feel of the piece shifts.
And remember when writing about difficult topics, giving the reader a bit of emotional distance can keep them with you.