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  • Writer's pictureSijin Xian

The Readers Are Always Right

Updated: Jan 31

The world is changing, and it always has.


I remember being confused and even a little resentful when I first came to the United States 11 years ago, upon realizing that many denizens of this foreign land, whose primary language I had spent well over a decade learning and constantly improving on, don't themselves obey some of the rules I was taught.


When I first met my now husband, a fellow language enthusiast, I was again confused and even a little resentful that he, of all people, was not bothered by all the chaotic, rule-breaking lawlessness around us. (How can you be so infuriatingly calm in the face of "an alumni"?! Where is the arm flailing? Join my crusade already!)


Our difference was essentially one between prescriptivism and descriptivism. I believe in language rules and the importance of obeying them, whereas Richard takes the role of observing how language is being used. To quote his go-to defense whenever I flagged what I believed was a misusage: "It's all just convention."


The world is changing, and I have, too (and I have to).


Guess who has switched sides?


Now, don't get me wrong. As a language professional, I obviously care about good grammar and coherent syntax, and Richard is an excellent writer himself! What I have recognized is the futility of fighting an unwinnable war and more importantly, the benefit of being curious instead of judgmental.


This mindset of going with the tide of how language is used—and how content is generated and consumed—is also essential to rethinking communication strategies.


In our consecutive note-taking practice session last week, we listened to this wonderful TED talk by Jim VandeHei, co-founder of Politico and Axios. VandeHei recounted a humbling moment when he checked the readership data of his viral, talk-of-the-town, White-House-response-eliciting column: most people did not even read past the first page or the first 450 words of his 1,600-word essay.


This was the impetus of Axios' Smart Brevity principle, and the rest is history.


Being with the change


Like the prescriptivism and descriptivism debate, the point is not who is right or how things should be, but how to adapt to the reality that's already here.


Like it or not, your readers are distracted.

Like it or not, you need to say more with less.

Like it or not, the future of writing is getting to the point fast.


A professional update: I have recently taken over the baton to serve as the Editor-in-Chief of Yifeng, the official blog of the Chinese Language Division of the American Translators Association. I wrote an introductory letter to outline my vision for the publication, and I look forward to curating insightful and easily digestible posts!

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