We’re in This Together? Not Me, Pal.

By Jack Limpert

The Washington Post seems to like the “we” approach to writing, as in Robert McCartney’s Metro column yesterday:

“It’s neither politically correct nor morally uplifting to say so, but I’m going to put it out there anyway.

“Sam Sheinbein had it coming.

“We’ve all been thinking it.”

Okay, you could argue that a columnist should have the freedom to use the “we’re all in this together” approach in trying to connect with the reader, and a reader can pretty easily decide which columnists are worth reading or ignoring. What has driven me up the wall over the years is the tendency for the Post’s Style writers to take that “we” approach, suggesting that the writer and I, the reader, share a bond and see the world in a similar way.

On mornings when the TV critic or some other Style writer suggests that we are a happy couple, I often can’t help but replay the old Lone Ranger joke in my head: “The Lone Ranger and Tonto find themselves staring up at canyon walls filled with hostile Indian warriors. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto, his Indian scout, and says, “What do we do now, Tonto?”  And Tonto says, “What do you mean we, Kemosabe?”

The biggest problem with the Post’s use of the “we” construction is that the paper has a million readers and only a few thousand may feel all that much kinship with a Post writer.

At the Washingtonian, I almost always edited out the “we” approach. We had 400,000 readers and the basic strategy of a metro daily or metro magazine is to appeal to a broad range of readers—young, old, urban, suburban, liberal, conservative. What Washingtonian readers had in common was a college degree (almost 100 percent) and many had a good income. We wanted all those readers but we knew that there are lots of different kinds of smart people in Washington.

The big downside of the “we” approach for mainstream publications is that it can turn off readers. As in, hey, McCartney, say what you want but don’t do my thinking for me. It’s even worse when a writer suggests that if I’m reading this story we must share a common love for something. At that point I think this publication is aimed at somebody but it’s not me and why am I reading it.

The “we” approach sometimes can work if you’re writing for, say, the Washington City Paper—its audience is young and urban and the writer and reader probably do like a lot of the same things. And many websites are targeted at a narrow audience—the editor is using a rifle approach, not a shotgun approach, to get readers.

As for the Post’s Style writers—or Metro columnists—seeking togetherness with its readers, I’m often with Tonto.


  1. This sentence irritated me more than the “we” construct:

    “It’s neither politically correct nor morally uplifting to say so, but I’m going to put it out there anyway.”

    When I read this sentence, I thought, my, what a brave columnist. And saying “put it out there anyway” is somewhat short, to my reading, of adopting as one’s own this politically incorrect and morally downdropping opinion.

Speak Your Mind