Writing as Hospitality: 4 Ways to Host Your Reader Well
Abby Wills, Consultant
Is it the way those freshly baked sentences melt in your mouth?
Is it the long, hair-frizzling hours it takes to make it?
Is it the satisfied, sleepy feeling after it’s gone?
I’m not sure either. But I do know that the act of writing is rarely done in isolation. When you write, you are almost always writing for someone. In a way, as the writer you are the host, and your reader is the guest, whom you must welcome into your home of paragraphs and feed with your long slaved-over words.
How does one host well? The practice of hosting is difficult enough when your guest is sitting face-to-face with you at your table, but what about when you don’t get to see your guest in person? What about when your guest is not coming to your house, but coming to your writing? How can your essay welcome, feed, and make conversation with your guest so that they feel like they have been hosted well and would be happy to come back?
This may seem an odd way to think about writing, but seeing your reader as your guest actually has practical implications. Here are four ways to host your reader well.
1. Know your reader.
It is embarrassing both for you and for your guest if you greet them at the door but can’t remember their name. On the other hand, if you ask your guest about their sick family member they mentioned to you once several days ago, then they will know you care since you remember such small details. Just as hosting well depends on your familiarity with your guest, writing well depends on your familiarity with your reader. Your reader—and therefore what they know, what they want to hear, what they are interested in, and what references they will get—will be different depending on whether you are writing a rhetorical analysis for class, an article for a medical journal, a personal statement for an application, or a short story for children. Knowing who you are writing for is the beginning of hosting them well with your words.
2. Know what your reader needs.
A good host is attentive to a guest’s needs. If the guest says, “I’m thirsty,” or “I’m cold,” or “I have a headache,” and the host doesn’t think to bring water, or a blanket, or medicine, the host has arguably failed in their host-ly duties. Although we can’t hear our readers speak as we are writing, a good writer/host will start to hear the needy reader’s voice in between sentences: “I need more information here,” “I want to know why this is important,” “I don’t understand the context of your argument,” “I don’t know where you’re going with this.” If you know your reader (see #1), you will know when they need more from their writer-ly host. And if you are an attentive host, then you will eagerly fetch that extra information your reader was missing–along with a blanket and some tea.
3. Give your reader clear directions.
Just as a guest will feel uncomfortable if they can’t find their host’s house—or the bathroom, or the kitchen, or the coat closet—your reader will also feel uncomfortable if you do not give them the directions they need to get smoothly through your paper. The kind of directions you give depends on knowing your reader (again, see #1). If your guest has been to your house several times already, you don’t need to tell them where to hang their coat. Likewise, if your reader is already in your field of study, you won’t need to define terms they already know. However, if your reader is unfamiliar with your field, your topic, or your argument, they will need clear signs in order to follow where you want them to go. The considerate writer—like the considerate host—points the reader in the right direction.
4. Be interested in your subject.
What does that have to do with hospitality? Why would my reader care if I’m interested in what I’m writing or not? I’m glad you asked.
You are a guest at a dinner with family friends. Someone brings up your host’s favorite hobby. Suddenly your host’s eyes light up. She smiles. She starts telling a story. She gestures excitedly. She raises her eyebrows. She laughs. The other guests laugh. They listen attentively. They ask for the rest of the story.
When your friend really loves something, you can tell. When they are fascinated by something, you can tell. And if they are really, really interested in something—often you can’t help but be interested in it too. Just as the above host tells a story that excites her (and thus excites her guests), the hospitable writer ought to write about what truly fascinates him—because the reader will know if the writer was bored with his subject, and the reader will be bored too. For the sake of his guests, the thoughtful host will not prepare a dinner he thinks is bland; for the sake of his reader, the thoughtful writer will not write an essay he thinks is boring.
Why does this matter?
It depends. If you want your guests to be glad they came, to want to come back, to exclaim, “This meal is so good!”—then you will make the effort to know them, pay attention to their needs, give them good directions, and foster interesting conversation. If you want your reader to enjoy your writing, to read easily, and to understand your argument, then you will practice thoughtful writing as you practice thoughtful hosting—with your guest in mind. When a guest is hospitably welcomed into someone’s home, they remember.