Home : Television Land: Avoiding the Editorial “We”

editorial-weAs storytellers, teachers, and thought leaders, writers must cultivate a skill for communicating without blocking the spotlight, don’t you think? Now tell me, isn’t it annoying when you’re watching a movie and one of the characters turns, faces the camera, and makes some remark to “the audience”—as if he’s in a live show and you’re sitting somewhere in “television land,” ready to cheer or shout advice? I’m sure you’ll agree that audience engagement must be managed cleverly. The Rocky Horror Picture Show pulled it off masterfully, but the editorial “we” has the potential to ruin the relationship between the reader, the narrator, and the characters in a book—even if the narrator is the main character. Talking to the reader is fine (and often inevitable) but the editorial “we” implies a partnership that hasn’t been sanctioned by both parties.

Talking directly to your reader from the inside of a story is a bit like hugging a stranger. As warm and personal as that gesture may be, it will likely be perceived as an invasion of space. Your book is about what you think. Your reader doesn’t owe you an opinion and even if she did, you can’t be “sure she’ll agree with you.”

Asking anonymous readers for their opinions or support makes you sound insecure and in need of approval. Having written a book, you have invited your reader to share your thoughts, ideas, feelings, memories, and experiences. Write boldly, humbly, and confidently. Stand behind your prose whether the reader likes it or not. Some will and some won’t. Ask your editor for a writing critique and then hand your reader your best shot.

Part of the “bargain” between writer and reader is that you, the author, get to share openly and intimately; the reader gets to consume your prose anonymously and without comment. A book is, in some respects, a “hidden camera” into your life and mind. “I see you peeking,” hints from the writer make that relationship creepy.

If your goal is to make your writing sound conversational and informal, talking to the reader is no more effective than preceding sentences with crutch phrases like “So,” “Anyway,” or “Also.” Informal writing is direct and simple. Hints of humor, personal style, and uncomplicated language are all that’s required.

Talking to the reader (as I am now doing to you) is perfectly acceptable; that’s what narrators do. I discussed the importance of the narrator’s voice in my article about writing dialogue. But if I had written, “We discussed …” in the previous sentence, I would have placed you in a conversation you hadn’t consciously agreed to participate in. As subtle as that is, some readers find it manipulative and disempowering. We never discussed anything.

As with other style patterns, be conscious of the relationship between you and your reader. Establish respectful ground rules and stick to them. Unless you’re the Pope or have parasites, avoid using editorial “we.”


Television Land: Avoiding the Editorial “We” — 11 Comments

  1. I truly believe it depends upon what you are sharing with the reader. If it is a subject; that for example, connects to life’s experiences (in which ‘we’ all have in common) then it’s normal to state ‘we’ for your readers to connect with you — the writer.

    • “We” is acceptable in some circumstances and not in others. Any hard and fast rule for writing will ultimately crumble. But when “we” asks for approval or assumes agreement without asking, it generates angst.

      If I were to write:

      “As authors, we agree that every sentence should end with a preposition.”

      You would (hopefully) feel I had overstepped my bounds.

      And if I was to ask, “what do you think?” at the end of this comment, you’d probably conclude I wasn’t very secure in my own convictions.

      Make sense?

  2. You seem to think that use of “we” really means “we”, when in fact its use in writing is a traditional narrative convention. When a writer says, “as we saw in chapter one…” the writer is not literally claiming that the reader is part of an actual plural group. It is merely a manner adopted in writing. Do you begin a letter with “”Dear X” despite never having met X, who thus cannot possibly be dear to you? Of course you do, because it’s a stylistic convention. It’s not much different. Language and literary conventions have passed down the years and are not subject to the kind of logic you seem to wish to impose upon them.

    • It’s not a religion; just a leaning. Use any form you want, but do it consciously. Again, see the highlighted examples in paragraph 1. And if you disagree, we can still be friends. Most style problems have less to do with right vs. wrong than they do with automatic vs. well-considered word choices. Cutesy requests for agreement from the reader annoy me. I’m sure some’o’y’all out there in the blogosphere feel the same way. : )

  3. This is just plain silly. It’s like saying Shakespeare should not have written soliloquies. It is perfectly appropriate for a writer to address readers within the text if the style of the text permits it. This is what one might call a false absolute rule, appropriate only to some books, not to all.

    • If I believed in absolute rules, I’d agree with you. I prefer to advocate for awareness and conscious decision-making about writing style. When I used to edit academic papers, I often cautioned students not to use editorial “we” when the intended reader was one of their professors. It is for a thesis committee to decide if a graduate degree candidate qualifies as a “we.”To imply that status already exists is an unintended affront. See the highlighted examples in the beginning of my article. To me, they weaken the writing and add a timid element.

  4. Hey Dave… long time no see.
    But… that’s not the “editorial we”, is it? You have to be an editor or something for that.
    Mostly people use the “authorial we”… “When we run out of options, we become violent”, is legitimate…. it means “people”. It might mean “men” (We have no idea what women want) or “Americans” (We are supposed to be a democracy) or man other constructions.
    There’s also the “patronicized we”… “Well, aren’t we proud of overselves?” “Well don’t we look nice in our new booties?”

    • Howdy Linton, I’m not objecting to the use of “we,” in general. As you correctly point out, “we” can refer to humanity in general. But if someone asks me, “Can you and Linton show up at the tractor pull tonight?” If I answer, “Sure! We’ll be right over.” I’ll have answered on your behalf without having the authority to do so. In a literary sense, it’s the same thing to assume or imply that your reader agrees, likes, or understands your point. The reader gets disenfranchised; he has no way to say, “Sorry, Dave. I already have plans to attend a corn shucking bee.”

  5. It happens in real life, too. I can’t stand when someone asks me “How are we doing today?” I have no idea how they’re doing. I could go on about how they look, or their grammatical clumsiness, but I really don’t know how THEY’RE doing. And how I’m doing, may not even be any of their business!

    If we’re working together as a team on something, then it’s appropriate to ask “How are we doing?” But other than that, if you feel the need to know how I’m doing, then just ask ME, not WE.

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