There are fewer challenges writers face greater than reaching and connecting deeply with readers who are often quite different than themselves.
The greatest, most resonant stories, like those of Shakespeare, Tolkien, and Rowling (yes, that’s right. I just put Harry Potter in the same class as Hamlet. Eat it, purists) explore universal themes. They reach groups of people across numerous cultures, and the authors accomplished that through masterful use of language.
However, their examples don’t make explicit the importance and impact of writers’ linguistic decisions in the way that Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime does.
While I’m not going to go in great detail through all of Noah’s book, I am going to discuss a couple key quotes. If you haven’t read it, stop now!
And seriously, go read the book. I liked Noah before. I thought he was funny. Now? I am legit impressed with him. He’s fascinating and brilliant, but he also comes across so approachable that by the end of the book you’ll feel like you know him.
What struck me the most about Noah is his dexterity with language and culture. Growing up during apartheid, Noah saw first-hand the power language held over people’s perceptions.
Even though apartheid used it to divide people, from a very early age, he understood the importance of wielding language to build bridges between people. He was an outsider, but through his use of language, he won a place amongst the different cultures around him.
By becoming a language “chameleon,” he was able to transition seamlessly from one group to the next. This ability is called code-switching: the practice of alternating between languages or varieties of language within a conversation.
This sort of dexterity is a highly desirable skill for writers, regardless of what genre you write.
Writers strive to reach diverse groups of people, but we cannot hope to communicate with so many different people in exactly the same way. Code-switching to match our audience improves our ability to communicate with readers. It ultimately makes us better and more successful writers.
Familiarize yourself with who your readers are and how they speak, and learn how to wield language artfully to match that knowledge. Consider how they use language differently than you. Learn to use it that way, too.
Holding hard and fast to language rules and structures you are comfortable with limits your ability to reach across to people walking different paths than yourself. Break the rules. Experiment with it!