Thinking About Readers

I’ve been flirting with the idea that while writing you really shouldn’t think about your readers at all. I have a commitment to writing well, and a commitment to my characters, to bring them to life and to be honest about their lives and emotions; and I wouldn’t want my concern for what the reader will think to get in the way of that.

On balance, though, I’ve concluded that thinking about your readers is important. I just don’t think about it consciously, that’s all. Having spent many years as a magazine editor of nonfiction, I take it entirely for granted that I’m steering my prose in the direction of readers’ eyeballs.

The interesting question is, who is your intended reader?

My guideposts for nonfiction writing and editing are simple: What does the reader already know (so that it doesn’t have to be explained), and what information is the reader hoping to get from this article? Your answers to those questions will steer you reliably.

If you’re writing fiction, the picture is fuzzier. If your intended reader is your mom, then of course anything goes. Your mom will like it no matter what you write, so no worries! Conversely, if your intended reader is Dorothy Parker (if she were still alive), then probably nothing you could ever write would be sufficient. She’s not going to like it. Between those two extremes, there are a lot of possibilities!

How intelligent is your intended reader? Your answer to this question will affect your choices in vocabulary and sentence structure. How patient or impatient is your reader? This will affect the way you structure your scenes and plot. What is your reader’s cultural background? This will affect, if nothing else, your decisions about whether to include explicit sex and violence. What other novels has your reader read, and what did he or she like about them, or dislike?

What is your reader hoping to get out of  your story — a deep insight into the tragic nature of the human condition? The surrogate fulfillment of some wish, perhaps the wish for a thrilling romantic encounter? The opportunity to explore, in depth, an exotic locale? An evening’s entertainment, and no more than that?

There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions. It’s up to you. But I’m pretty sure they’re important questions to ask yourself.

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