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.