Now that I’ve got some people actually reading my words, I’m thinking about what readers can do for writers (besides buying our books, of course!). Back in grad school I took a course on professional writing. This is the first of two posts on what I learned about how to use readers’ advice.
What readers can do. Readers have an amazing ability to identify problems in what they read. As a writer, that’s the main thing I need. Does this passage establish the mood I’m going for? Will they pick up on that clue, or do I need to point it out? Are the character’s goals and actions clear? There’s nothing more valuable than getting a reader’s perspective on these things.
One of the most useful pieces of advice I got from my graduate writing course was this: As long as the readers represent your target audience, then when they find problems in your work they are absolutely right. If a reader says something is confusing, then by definition it is confusing. The same is true if someone says something is boring, or not funny, or predictable. If a reader points out a problem, then the problem exists. Of course, different readers will respond to the same passage in different ways. What is boring for one may be funny for another or confusing for a third. This doesn’t mean they are wrong, it just means they represent different segments of your audience. If a reader says that something is confusing, then you can be sure that a certain percentage of your target audience will find it confusing.
How can you most effectively tap into this problem-finding ability? It helps if you can be specific. Are you worried that a descriptive passage might be boring? Ask that question directly. Even better, hand your readers a pencil and ask them to put a little mark in the margin next to any line of text they skimmed over. Worried that they might not understand a character’s goals at one point? Insert a question in your text right at that point asking something like, “What do you think Bob is trying to accomplish?” Leave a space for your readers to write in an answer.
It also helps to give your readers lots of signals that it’s okay for them to point out problems. Put it to them exactly that way: “I’m too close to what I wrote, so I need fresh eyes, like yours, to help me find the places where I can make it better. Please help me by being honest!” If a polite reader gushes about how much she loved it, thank her graciously, then say, “But how can I make it better?” Then be sure you follow through by thanking people for their comments, especially their negative comments.
If readers are accurate reporters of problems, then a writer should NEVER argue with a reader about whether a problem exists. When someone points out a problem it is permissible to probe a little to pin down the exact nature of the problem (as in, “Were you unsure about what Jane did, or about why she did it?”). You are not allowed to challenge their concerns or try to explain them away. If you hear yourself saying something like, “But look, right here it says…,” stop. Thank your readers and move on to the next question.
If readers are always accurate in pointing out problems, does this mean that everything they tell us is accurate? Maybe you can guess the answer from the title of my next post on this topic: What readers can’t do (in which I probe the mysteries of the unconscious mind–really!).