Elizabeth Cox

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Why fun writing can save lives: the case for it being high impact to make EA writing entertaining

Building on your 'How to make writing more engaging' section, I wanted to add a few thoughts on how to use humor and tone to make writing more engaging without sacrificing other desirable qualities. 

When collaborating with academics and other experts to communicate complex ideas to a general audience, I've often encountered reluctance to use humor, or even a conversational tone, when discussing topics related to suffering or death. This reluctance isn't just about being taken seriously; it also stems from a concern that using humor or taking a lighter tone would be insensitive. It can be really difficult to convey empathy through writing! On the other hand, writing that uses humor and/or a casual tone doesn't necessarily lack empathy or rigor.

Personally, I avoid humor that punches down: no jokes at the expense of someone (whether a specific individual/group or an abstract one) who is suffering, disenfranchised, or in an otherwise powerless position. Sounds obvious once you say it, but turning this intuition into an explicit guideline makes it easier to apply. 

In terms of tone, I think sometimes people conflate "conversational" with "flippant"--dismissive of subject, field, or reader. I like "conversational" as a descriptor because it doesn't just imply "using more casual language, as you would in conversation," but also a deeper level of engagement that, done right, is the opposite of dismissiveness: your readers are depending on you to supply both sides of the conversation, so you have to put yourself in their shoes to do your subject justice. Are they encountering the idea you're trying to communicate for the first time? What might they find confusing, off-putting, or slightly goofy about it? Acknowledge these potential sticking points and address them explicitly.  

Combining self awareness and humor can also be effective, especially for a  general or non-expert audience. It's ok to acknowledge your quirks, explain them, even poke a little fun at yourself--by "you" I mean either you the author, or a group you/your writing is aligned with, or an institution you're part of.  

Though it's certainly possible to overdo this and veer into the territory of protesting too much, in moderation I've found that explicit self awareness can actually build credibility. And any technique that helps cast the reader as a co-pilot rather than a passenger should make the writing more engaging. 

And yeah, read your writing out loud. I started doing this because I had to for my job and I hated it because I'm shy. I found the practice so useful that I started reading almost everything I write aloud.