Why It’s Important To Take Your Reader Into Account

As you compose, consider your reader's needs too

Eventually, if you want to develop as a writer, you must share your work with someone.

Ideally, this should be someone independently interested in your topic or your genre, who already reads the type of writing you’re working on. Audience awareness implies taking your reader’s perspective into account, but at first, you might not have any idea who your actual reader is likely to be.

With impeccable timing, since I was writing about this topic anyway, just this morning Author Magazine shared the story of a writer who ignored her audience, and learned to change her perspective:

“Before Laura Munson published her breakout bestselling memoir, This is Not the Story You Think it Is, she wrote for herself.

With novel after novel getting rejected, who else was there for her to write for?

Now that her work has found an audience, now that readers are telling her how much her books have meant to them, she cannot help but “Consider the Reader.”

Strangely, it is this understanding—that her words will in fact impact others—that helped grant her the authority she needs to speak most honestly for herself.

Now, your ideal reader is not one who exists to critique your writing, looking specifically for flaws, nor is she there to tell you that it’s ‘great,’ without giving you useful feedback. A negative belief many beginning writers have is that if they dare show their work to someone, it will (or should) be critiqued—meaning: picked apart and changed.

Your best reader will be someone who likes your subject matter and already reads the type of writing you’re producing, and can give you a well-thought-out response. S/he is not interested in ego games, but sincerely wants to read a good piece of writing, and is willing to help you find the words to communicate what you’re trying to convey.

There are two basic types of writing situations: one in which you write for yourself exclusively, and one in which you intend for someone else to read what you’ve written. An important step in your development as a writer is when you become aware of what your reader is likely to think or feel in response to your writing.

While most of the guidance or advice you receive focuses on what’s going on inside of you and your approach to the writing itself (in terms of developing skills or talents), becoming aware of your audience requires that you pull your attention away from the act of writing, instead focusing on the effect your writing has on others.

n his truly excellent writer’s guide The Daily Writer: 366 Meditations to Cultivate a Productive and Meaningful Writing Life, English professor Fred White reminds writers to “envision individuals reading and responding to your work” rather than having them be a “vague abstraction.” He says that “how you envision your readers can influence the way you write” (188).

Envisioning your reader has a positive and a negative implication, though; if you are too concerned with what your reader thinks, you run the risk of compromising your own vision and style. If you are oblivious to your potential reader, though, you risk losing your reader through ignorance (being unaware of your reader’s potential hot-button issues, let’s say) or arrogance (thinking it won’t matter what you say or how you say it, you’re going to write whatever you feel like writing).

Once you make the decision to write with the eventual goal of sharing your writing, your focus should change from paying attention only to your feelings about your writing. At some point, perhaps during a rewrite of a draft, you will begin to wonder: What will someone else think of what I’m saying?

Remember letter writing? Writing a letter forced you to keep your reader firmly in mind; an excellent habit for writers to employ, no matter the genre.

A realistic audience for your writing could be one or more of any of the following:

  • One trusted reader (preferably not a family member or someone you’re so close to they won’t be able to give honest, effective feedback)
  • A writing group or other writing organization (online or in your area)
  • Potentially, when you feel ready, an agent

It’s easiest to define your audience when you’re writing within a genre, and if you are committed to getting published, you should already be reading or have read a great deal of the genre you hope to become published in. Until you define your audience, however, you will have trouble imagining what they’d want to read or the most effective ways to communicate with them.

No matter what you write, there are rules and conventions attached to the type of writing that you will be required to follow, and knowing those rules ahead of time will save you a lot of rewriting later on. Key to audience awareness is research into who already reads what you’re interested in writing about; where does this type of writing get published; does this type of writing have an established audience (is there a market for the writing you’re interested in doing)?

If you’re used to writing for yourself (an audience of one) it can be difficult making the shift to thinking about your audience’s needs. The first thing I know any audience will require from you is coherent writing, correctly spelled and edited for error, so let’s take that as a given, that Rule #1 of writing for others is to make your writing easy to read and easy to understand.

The rest of the rules do not follow quite so easily in any kind of order, however, and this is where I’d like you to brainstorm ideas.

Imagine your perfect reader, and try to see her or him as clearly as possible. For example, the perfect reader for the historical mystery I’m writing is fairly well-educated, older (over 40, perhaps), interested in history, specifically Ancient Athens, and already reads historical fiction (preferably murder mysteries).

If you had the luxury of having your perfect reader in front of you, what questions would you ask him or her? Make a list of things you want to know about your ideal reader. Interview your reader (in your imagination and then on paper) to discover what other books they’ve read? Where do they live? What do they do for a living? What are their hobbies?

Then turn the ‘conversation’ around, and think about the passages of your writing you’d most want your reader to see and comment on. Tell your reader very specifically (write this down!) what kind of help you’re looking for, what kind of comments you need from them; what kind of help you want with your grammar, or style, or vocabulary—whatever you have been thinking, write it all down.

These notes will be very important when you finally do have a reader, because it will help focus your mind, and it will help keep you and your reader away from useless, vacuous comments about how much they “liked” the action on page 15. All well and good, but we want your reader to be specific. What did they like? What didn’t work for them?

Most importantly, be sure to ask your reader, not what they liked, but what they understood or didn’t understand. The easiest mistake for any writer, experienced or not, to make, is to assume their reader understands what they’re trying to say. We think this, as writers, because we have no idea what our reader actually thinks until we ask them. This information is more important, and will ultimately make you a better writer, than asking if your writing is “any good,” or if the reader “liked it.” 

I may not like it when my reader says my writing can use a lot of work, but I will be grateful if he shows me what specifically is not working for him, since I trust my reader’s judgement. Every writer needs one serious reader whose judgement they respect.

A good reader is one who tells you what about your writing was effective, what worked, rather than discussing what they “liked.” Having someone tell you they liked or disliked your writing is too vague, and doesn’t help you grow as a writer. Having your reader show you precisely what worked or didn’t work is helpful. Without this feedback, your writing won’t improve. However, there is no excuse for any reader to criticize unfairly or harshly. It is never necessary, and it puts off many beginning writers.

The Silent Dialogue: How We Create The Book We’re Reading

One of the most interesting things that happens to us as writers occurs when we read.

The real story is created as we read.

The real story is created as we read.

We conduct a ‘silent dialogue’ with the text, and, to the extent we imagine the writer in our minds, making him or her seem real as we read, with its author. This imagined collaborator, the ‘author,’ guides us as we make sense of what we read, but we do all—or most—of the real work involved.

If you take notes while you read, you will inevitably ‘talk’ to the piece of writing. You might even talk out loud. If you’re like me, you ask questions of the text as you underline phrases, or draw circles around crucial words; or perhaps, words you don’t understand; ideas you agree with, disagree with, have a strong opinion about.

As soon as you begin to interact with the text, you’ve formed a relationship with its author, but it’s a silent one (unless you can somehow meet the writer and ask him or her your questions). Even so, the real relationship you’re having is not with the writer, for you are imagining him or her, even as you imagine the characters she’s created. The real relationship you’re having is with her writing, which becomes real for you as you interweave yourself, your values, your beliefs, your experiences, into what she’s written.

How could Lizzy and Jane be so patient?

I remember the first time I read Pride and Prejudice, for example. I was 16 or 17 years old, and I found myself frustrated by the slow pace the heroine’s life was taking. I could not understand how Jane Austen, with such sanguinity, allowed her protagonist, Elizabeth Bennett, to endure months of unhappiness and uncertainty over Mr. Darcy. Why couldn’t Elizabeth write to him? Why couldn’t her sister Jane let Mr. Bingley know how she felt? Why did nothing happen?

I remember yelling at that book, tossing it down in frustration, unable to continue reading. The relationship I formed with the writer I’d constructed in my mind was one of tension and irritation. I didn’t understand a lot of things in those days, but the primary thing I did not understand was that in my responses to the text, I was creating my very own version of Pride and Prejudice, the one I interwove with my responses, my ideas, my attitudes and opinions as I read.

My frustration at how slowly Darcy and Elizabeth fall in love, coupled with the arcane, stultifying social rules of Regency England, stemmed from beliefs I had formed in an era very different for young women than the one in which Austen wrote. My responses made excellent fodder for my writing, because my values reflected the changes that had happened for women since Austen‘s era, and therefore inspired a paper on the freedoms young women in America took for granted.

As a teacher, I’ve encouraged students to respond to the text conversationally, focusing less on the author as we have been taught to think of him or her, instead conceiving the text as a piece of writing you can engage with directly, commenting, complaining; noticing similarities or differences between the writing and our own experiences.

Although this process is considered a form of reader-response theory or critique, my goal has not been to get the student to critique the text, but rather, to form ideas and responses that will inspire writing and assist in self-awareness and critical thinking skills.

The values and mores of the Regency Era baffled me

One of the most valuable pieces of writing any reader can engage in, therefore, is a journal or diary of responses to a piece of writing. By silently engaging with a text, you will find that you have many things to say. Your personal responses to any piece of writing will inspire you to create something new, and you’ll learn about yourself and your values as you interweave your own reality with someone else’s words.

To get an idea of how to inspire your own writing through responding to someone else’s work, see Lisa Ede’s Work In Progress. To understand the culture in which the idea of the reader or audience’s response to the writing, rather than the author per se, became an important discussion, compare and contrast New Criticism with reader-response criticism.

Following I. A. Richards‘ study of reader misunderstandings and misreadings conducted in 1929, theory began to center around the idea that the reader creates the text they read, that there is no textual reality that exists a priori containing one—and only one—’correct’ meaning, that instead, the individual’s interpretation matters tremendously to how we make meaning.

In addition to this, and important to me when I teach, has been trying to convey the concept that the individual author’s personality or characteristics, while ‘important’ from the perspective of imagining authorial intention, should not derail teachers from what is even more important: getting the student to value their own writing.

Writing to Persuade: Proven Techniques That Convince Others To Listen To You, Take You Seriously, And Change Their Minds

Making Aristotle and Plato palatable!

My book about how to argue effectively is now available on Amazon.com! I am in the process of getting them to ‘unlock’ it so that the reader can look inside it.

Writing to Persuade: Proven Techniques That Convince Others To Listen To You, Take You Seriously, And Change Their Minds is intended to be a guide for those who need to construct an effective argument.

These days, argumentation can include anything from writing political blogs, to letters to the editor of your local newspaper, to convincing your partner to buy something they don’t want to spend money on, to convincing a wide audience that their perspective is limited by a lack of information. What connects all of these writing situations is the need to persuade the listener or reader of your way of seeing something.

The goal with persuasion is not, in and of itself, to be proven ‘right.’ Being right is often attained at the expense of furthering the conversation, and will also usually lose your audience. Your audience isn’t as concerned with who is right or wrong as they are with results. Effective argumentation shows you how to see an issue comprehensively, holistically, so that instead of focusing on ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ you become aware of the issues at stake.

An effective argument is usually an impassioned argument that contains enough believability and factual evidence, that it impresses your listener with the power of your position. To persuade is not to cajole, manipulate, or ‘sell’ someone on an idea. Instead, a truly persuasive argument educates. You broaden your audience’s awareness of a subject, with the goal of helping them understand the subject, and see it from your perspective.

To argue effectively is to gain the respect of your listener, no matter how opposed s/he is to your position. Anything less is not oratory or rhetoric in the traditional sense; it’s mud-slinging and manipulation, neither of which I believe in. If the goal of argumentation is to educate and enlighten, nothing comes of ad hominem attacks, or any of the many tactics used against one’s opponent.

That’s why I wrote this book: to provide an easy-to-read, quick, and accessible view of argumentation, and to show that it’s actually quite simple to persuade others when you have the goal of understanding each other in mind, rather than ‘winning’. This book is not about winning an argument, being right, or appearing smarter than your opponent; it’s about approaching the person you disagree with, with respect, realising that they have a right to their position.

And yet you will show them how your position is ultimately the better, more reasonable, sensible approach. That’s the essence of effective argumentation, just as it is in creative writing: show, don’t tell.