Glawe: Trust thy reader

Michael Glawe

I was making my rounds last Friday night, reading the columns and articles produced by my fellow writers here at the Iowa State Daily (yes, this is how I spend my free time) and I noticed that one particular piece, written by our very own satirist Alexander Maxwell, had received a considerable amount of attention.

The attention, however, was molded out of grave misapprehensions rather than relaxed laughter.

Maxwell’s column, “College Sports are not helpful,” was a satirical piece that sought to poke fun at the serious nature of college sports and the sometimes overly zealous fans loyal to their teams until death (it would be fair to add that I consider myself one of them). Unfortunately, nobody caught the satire, and many instead mocked the Iowa State Daily for publishing the column.

(As a side note, there’s a stark difference between an article and column, people. Columns are opinionated and articles are not.)

What was ironic, however, was that the backlash to the Maxwell’s writing (which was laughable, might I add) merely proved his point. I would venture to guess that the core of the outrage was composed of the same overly zealous fans we poke fun at.

But I think there is greater point to be made here. The success of any given article or column produced by the Daily, or any news source for that matter, hinges upon the writer’s trust in the reader and vice versa. If somehow that relationship breaks down, one or both parties lose respect for the other. In Maxwell’s case, the delivery relied upon a trust that the reader would understand the column as satirical.

Now, writing for a college newspaper is, and I hate to sound cliche, a learning process, so trust is bound to be shaken every once in a while. A bad article may appear in one of our editions, but this shouldn’t warrant labels such as “asinine” from the readers. Reading articles and columns produced by hard-working students who love journalism should come with a certain understanding of the conditions at hand.

However, this is only one side of the equation. Writers also need to trust their readers, which is something I am not particularly comfortable with yet. I don’t trust my readers to always know what I’m talking about, and I often fall victim to playing “professor” and explaining every single concept I mention in my columns. With an 800-word limit, over-explaining becomes a major hindrance.

Although some distrust with the reader is needed, I think. The purpose of an article or column is, after all, to inform the audience and foment discussion on the relevant matters of our time. This must come with an attitude of frankness and candidness, because the reader may not know everything. (What would be the point in reporting?)

Unfortunately, there are those readers whom I will never trust to understand what I’m talking about. These are the readers who assume to know and comprehend everything. Such an audience easily dismisses the arduous trials of the writer (I know more than you; what’s the point in reading this?), and this dismissal in turn delegitimizes, in their own mind, the information presented before them, however true it might be.

I despise these people. Yet, at the same time, I make attempts to appeal to their fancy. It’s a habit that must be broken.

Because of this, when I write my columns, I constantly debate with myself, “How much is too much? How much is too little? Is this too big of a word? Should I slow the narrative down?” I find myself engulfed in complete frustration when threading a major argument through the needle hole of 800 words (those hyperlinks sure do help).

I’ve found that when I am given more time to think about what the audience can and cannot comprehend, the “professor” in me shows up in my writing. In the end, the columns that turn out to be my best pieces of work are the one’s where I just “let go” — I don’t think about the readers, I just write. I suppose the opposite could be said for those who write articles (you absolutely have to think about your readers).

Anyways, while people obliviously poke fun at Maxwell’s column and heedlessly pass judgment, saying that he “shouldn’t write anymore,” the rest of us attentive readers will laugh and enjoy the creativity. Maybe next time we’ll include a preface explaining that the piece is a satire, because obviously there are people we can’t trust to consider that fact.

Michael Glawe is a junior in mathematics and economics from New Ulm, Minn.