Writing for the Reader

At first, the title of this post seems to mean: Go ahead, sell out. After all, Cyril Connolly made the famous remark: “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.” Yet I mean something quite different. I frequently enjoin the writers I edit to consider their readers on a given plot point or character turn, according to its believability or difficulty of comprehension.

It’s common for an author to get caught up in the world that they are devising. Because the detective they have created is offbeat, for example, they feel that the detective can make decisions, often violent ones, that would get him thrown off any sane police force. So I ask: do you think the reader is going to swallow that? 

Or, consider a character that is portrayed as acutely shy. She goes to a town meeting, at which you would expect she won’t make a peep. Yet because the plot calls for someone to challenge the town officials, there she is standing up and yelling at them in impassioned harangues. I like tumult as much as any reader, but not if Sheila has to become schizophrenic.

Ironically, because readers exist outside the book, thinking of them as you’re writing forces you to burrow more deeply inside your book. You don’t miss obvious points of logic when you concentrate enough to imagine how your flamboyant detective is regarded at the station house by his follow-their-nose brethren. If you’re truly writing from inside Sheila’s head, you know that a huge lump would rise in her throat at the very thought of expressing her feelings in a crowd. 

This advice extends all the way down to the individual sentence. If you are torturing your prose in order to seem more literary, for instance, I will highlight an instance and query: “Will a reader understand this?” In many cases the sentence in question uses a few fancy words to mask a very ordinary observation, or its structure is inverted in order to accomplish that same purpose. What is your duty to the reader? To come up with original ideas, told in clear language that wows them with the acuity of your insights.

Exercise: You take on a reader’s role when you are reviewing material during a later pass. You are slightly removed from the original outpouring, particularly if you haven’t read the material for months. Do you, as the reader, understand what you’re writing? If you don’t, be honest with yourself. Tinker with the point, no matter how much configuring in other parts of the manuscript is required, until you know you’ve nailed it down.

“Thank your readers and the critics who praise you, and then ignore them. Write for the most intelligent, wittiest, wisest audience in the universe: Write to please yourself.”  —Harlan Ellison

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

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