Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sensing the Reader

One may think that there are as many reasons for writing as there are writers. I disagree. I can categorize why we write into three categories:

1. We have a story to tell about what impacts us deeply.

2. We have a story to tell that will affect others deeply.

3. We want to make a living.

One may argue that we write for all three reasons. I can agree with that. I can also disagree with that. While some of us may be mature enough in our writing journey to incorporate all three categories into our writing regime, others of use are not. Frankly, the earlier we are in our career, the more likely we can only handle one concept at a time.

Everyone leads off with either 1 or 3. It's natural.

Look at 3. We want to earn a living as a writer, so we hunt for markets and write whatever fits the mold. Nothing wrong with that. It's just that the writing will sound hollow, regardless of the syntax, grammar or structure. You can get all the parts right, but the heart may not be engaged. We're thinking business and income first. As we grow, we learn that passion has to fit in somewhere, whether it's yours or that of your character or subject. As you travel in your journey, you hopefully learn that depth matters.

Look at 1. Many commence their writing career with a cathartic story to tell, whether fiction or nonfiction. The first chapter of my novel began as a real-life moment from which I spun fiction. It was a story that I could see in my head; one that took me years to record on paper. Many writers have memoirs, person issues, obstacles overcome, loved ones lost, family biographies or personal beliefs that they feel need to be disseminated to the world. Ideas that are chocked full of passion! They need to tell these tales. They need to express themselves. They tell themselves that others need to know these stories to live better lives, when in reality, it's more about recording these moments for posterity. In most cases, they aren't sure they could define the readership of such a story. As any seasoned writer knows, "everyone" isn't a readership. The scribe must write for a particular type of reader.

The commonality of 1 and 3 is this . . . the reader is not a prime consideration. Sure, many writers in category 1 "think" they are writing for others, but they aren't. It's a justification of writing their own story. Many writers starting off in category 3 think they can just tweak their words meet the needs of others, but it's not an on and off switch.

Conclusion: A good writer writes for the reader. He knows the ages, social levels, geography, education, experience, professions and, most of all, needs of his reader. The new writer struggles with this, but over time realizes that it's just as important as writing well. When he feels the reader looking over his shoulder at the end of each paragraph, he's in the zone. Like developing voice, sensing the reader is a talent that takes time, but is well-worth cultivating. Content isn't king . . . the relationship with a reader is.


Kathleen Basi said...

And then there's the point that *I* *want* to communicate to the reader, and how to reach them. :) I've been thinking about the what-I-produce vs. what-they-want dynamic a lot lately. Maybe I really do need to write that blog entry...

Cari Galeziewski said...

I'm a fairly new writer (4 years) who hasn't been published yet. The reason I started writing was because of #2. I had 4 young children at the time and was/am so moved by great children's books that I wanted to do the same for others.

Live, Laugh, Love- Always! said...

I don't really like to disagree with seasoned authors such as you. I look to your for hope, like your namesake. Your blog posts often make me think and smile... needless to say disagreeing with you forces me to realize that you too are simply human and like us all have your own opinions and feelings on what others write.
I disagree because since I started writing as a youngster in the Young Authors Program through my school, I've thought about what I could write that would make people feel... yes, I've spent my life writing fiction to make people feel.
I want readers to read the story and to think about it, to feel something- love, hate, anger, peace, sadness whatever... I just want to express a story to readers that gives them pause in their daily life. I want to give them a feeling of being somewhere else, another time in history, another place in their world, to be another person, I just want my reader to enjoy my story and feel something from it.
While making money is definitely a benefit and personal experience sometimes weaves it's way into my stories I have never written a story because of just #1 and #3 and by no means did I start out with #1 or #3...
I think it's a gross oversight on your part to assume that writers start out with only thinking about #1 or #3 and kind of an insult to beginning writers everywhere.

Hope Clark said...


I'm glad to get your blood boiling. From my desk, I hear from many who actually start off wanting to make money. Nothing romantic or emotional about it. They need to pay bills and don't have the skills to step into many jobs in this tight market, so they turn to writing. Yes, there are many in #3. I also hear from many who've had a cathartic experience, or grew up sadly and overcame, or had a serious loss and evolved from it. They have "their" story to tell. They tell themselves it's for others to learn from, but it's very difficult to transcend from writing about one's self . . . for others. An amazing number of people come to me with such stories to tell, self-publish them because so many publishers and agents do not want many of those unless remarkable written, and then cannot sell them. I get asked to guide them as to how to make sales.

But we have to "own" a story to tell it. That often falls into #1. However, many cannot transition into #2. They tell themselves that "their" story will impact others, but more times than not, the story doesn't. It's a maturity thing. Yes, it has to impact us . . . but we have to be open-minded to see whether or not readers will care what we've written.

We can't assume that because we've poured ourselves into a piece, that it's useful for the world. We'd "like" to think that, and too often we aren't honest with ourselves to admit that maybe we are writing more for us than the readership.

Just being real here.

Live, Laugh, Love- Always! said...

Yes, your post did get my blood boiling... and while I'm not yet a published or 'mature' writer, I do consider myself a writer... and I do consider my readers when I write. I may not be a good writer, I may not actually ever sell any books BUT what I write is always for other people to read.
It saddens me to think that people write just for the money. Perhaps those are the people that don't ever get published... there must be heart and soul in your writing and it has to be well thought out. A novel, nonfiction article, poem or whatever type of writing an author attempts must read well and yes absolutely affect the reader. Otherwise what is the real point of writing?
I just know how much effort I've always put into my writing and how much I want my reader to actually read it and in some way be affected by it.
Just writing to tell your story or for money will never garner an audience.
I suppose I am just shocked that more authors don't realize if you don’t affect your readers... you have no readers...

Cat York said...

Hope- I like that you're sticking to your guns on this. I've been commissioned to illustrate several children's books for new independent writers who don't want to submit their work to publishers, and I've noticed 3 things:

1. They're impatient to publish.
2. They always tell their own story - most of the time it's the only children's story they've ever tried to write.
3. They resist feedback.

I've seen clients spend more than $30,000 on their first self-published book. The same people don't want to hear from me that they should get a professional opinion on the content of the story. Most edit for copy only and make few changes. I tell them to pick a target audience. I get a lot of "For all ages." This statement alone shows they lack research and planning and just write what they want.

This is one of the reasons I hesitate to illustrate self-published kid's books anymore. Too often ends in a misallocation of funds and disappointment for the new writer - and for me. Like anyone involved in book making, I want to eventually be a part of something that really sells. Right?

Learning to write for an audience is different than writing to satisfy yourself. It's not always about the money. It's about filling a need and adapting your craft. That's how you know you're growing.

Thanks for your post.

Cat York