Understanding the Reader Without Pandering to the Reader
just a little bit of writing advice
A few days ago I tweeted a pithy bit of writing advice that, like most tweets, was only half-thought out:
Yet I think it’s also right. Or at least as right as right as vague writing advice can be.
At the most basic level, writing is form a communication in which ideas in one person’s mind are transferred to another’s mind via the medium of text. Certainly it’s more complicated than that—e.g., readers actively bring their own ideas and interests to a text and don’t absorb it passively—but that’s the gist. I think up a story and write it down on dead paper. You read it and the story comes alive again in your mind. Not in exactly the way I dreamed it, sure, but with a healthy amount of my dream’s DNA.
The point is the text is all the reader has to go on. While your novel/poem/story/whatever with all it’s great characters, important themes, deep symbolism, and thrilling events lives as a lush, wild jungle in your mind, the reader doesn’t have access to that. They only have the text. So the key—or at least a key—to writing is learning how to experience your text as the reader experiences it. That is, with nothing else. Just the words.
Yes, this is somewhat basic. But the older I get the more, the more I find the basics are the most important things. Writers spend a lot of time focused on the beauty of their language, the uniqueness of their voice, or the depth of their worldbuilding—all good things of course—but can sometimes gloss over the fundamentals. So in this post I’ll try to elaborate on this advice.
Not Pandering to the Reader
I’m going to start with the last part of that tweet. In recent years, I’ve noticed a shift away from talking about “the reader” in creative writing classes for some good reasons. Namely, many authors and critics with marginalized identities have rightly pointed out the way that creative writing classes can pressure writers to shape their work toward a very specific audience. Basically, well-off straight white people with a Western understanding of story structure. Students might be told to make a book less queer or more exoticized or in countless other ways to make their work less personal and more formulaic for this assumed audience.
That is one way to pander to the reader. And one sure to give us less interesting and more flattened works of art.
Another way to pander to the reader is to write towards your worst reader, fearfully trying to anticipate every bad faith reading and hedge off any possible offense. This makes for watered-down, anemic work. And it doesn’t work anyway. Someone somewhere will take offense no matter what you do.
When I say you should understand “the reader,” I don’t mean any specific audience. Nor do I mean the most bad faith reader eager to ding you on Goodreads and cancel you on Twitter. I also don’t mean your “ideal reader” or best reader, the one who will give you the benefit of the doubt on everything. What I mean is simply another mind which is not your mind. A mind that knows nothing except the words in the order they appear on the page.
Understanding the Reader
As writers, we (hopefully) know what we want to say in a story, even if we inevitably can’t fit it all in. We know more about our characters, more about our settings, and more about themes and points. It takes active work to understand how someone else will experience our stories without all that extra knowledge. When I teach workshops, I often suggest students begin their feedback letters with a summary of any given story. The reason for this is so the writer can learn what other readers took from the reading. What stood out or didn’t. What made sense or left questions. Often, the writers are quite surprised.
Here are some specific areas that often stand out to me along these lines:
Unless your book becomes part of some rabid geek fanbase or a English lit staple, few if any readers are going to read your stories with the Talmudic scrutiny you write and revise them. Readers are distracted. We read a story on a loud, crowded subway. We put a novel down midchapter and don’t get back to it for weeks. We read a chapter sleepily late at night. We miss things. What writers fear is beating their reader over the head is often doing the bare minimum to tap them on the shoulder.
This is a lesson even famous and award-winning authors can forget. I remember hearing a favorite writer give a craft talk and mention how in their first draft of a novel they had a line from chapter 1 repeated near the end of the book. “Aha, everyone will snap their fingers at the connection and realize the true identify of this character!” they thought. But then their editor, they said, quite rightly pointing out no one was going to remember that line 250 pages later. The novel needed to repeat that line four, five, or more times spaced out across the text for the reader to notice.
Order of information:
Outside of some experimental works, most stories are read lineally from start to finish and the reader only gets information in the order it appears in the story. Ask yourself if the information in the right order? If a reader isn’t told the relationship between two characters (lovers? rivals? former best friends?) until chapter 10, then their interactions in chapters 1-9 might not be as interesting as they could be. Certainly there are times in which withholding information is done for a specific effect, but far too often beginning writers don’t think about when information is revealed. They’re focused on the beauty of their sentences and not about whether the reader knows what they need to know when they need to know it.
Space on the page:
Repetition is one way to emphasize important elements, but not the only one. In general, the reader pays more attention to what is given the most space. Are the most pivotal scenes given the most space? Or are all scenes written with similar pacing and similar emphasis? Do the major characters appear the most? Does your main character think about the story’s important themes and ideas? Etc.
These are the kind of larger structural questions I ask myself when I’m revising my work. There are many smaller, line-level questions here too. I’ve written before about the “metaphor pile-up” when writers include several metaphors back-to-back without thinking about how these visual images will work in the reader’s mind. Even if you have several great lines, one strong metaphorical image might be more impactful than five contradictory ones piled up together.
To try and sum this up, the point is just that as writers we should try as much as we can to experience the text as another reader would. As just a text. Only the words on the page in the order they appear on the page. Ask yourself if the information in the right order for the reader to understand what you want them to understand? Are the important elements emphasized? Is the reader being directed toward the things you want to direct them to?
Sure, there are some experimental works that want to be an open field for the writer to frolic in whatever direction they desire. But for most stories, the text is a path in the woods the reader walks through from beginning to end. You have to give them the necessary signposts and directions if you want them to reach the right destination.
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This is some really solid advice. My first drafts are often pretty exploratory, and I often struggle with making the Order of Information coherent in later revisions. Why didn’t the reader learn about X until Chapter 10? Because *I* didn’t think of X until Chapter 10! And if I have to look at Chapters 1-9 again I’m going to torch the manuscript!
This is very helpful. I will definitely keep this in mind-going forward.Thanks!