What the Reader Wants

Hey, I haven’t posted any writing advice in a while! And what with one thing and another, there’s a particular issue I’ve been pondering.

Sometimes–this happened to me more when I hung out at various online crit-group type places–I’ll see someone advise writers that they need to make things digestible for the reader. They need to follow reader expectations, because otherwise the reader won’t like the story. The advice was rarely so general. It usually took very specific forms. Don’t write something that requires some sort of previous knowledge! Or, don’t use long, obscure words! Don’t use complicated sentence structures! Don’t violate plot expectations! (Make sure there’s a romance/happy ending/three act structure/whatever.) Don’t use second person! Don’t use present tense! Don’t use omni, readers think it’s headhopping! Whatever.

It all boils down to “Don’t challenge the reader. The reader wants the story to go down easily, and be exactly what they expect it to be.”

Here’s the problem with that: what reader are you talking about?

For a specific example, I once workshopped a story that included a silly joke about Occam’s Razor. One critiquer complained that I should not be including obscure stuff like that in my story, and they knew it was obscure because they had never heard of it. I pointed them to the wiki entry and was told that not everyone cared much about religion and I should just leave that kind of stuff out.

Now, the joke was stupid. It was not my best story. But Occam’s Razor? Obscure? Occam’s Razor is not obscure. At least not in the circles I tend to hang with.

But of course, I bet if I went into the grocery store right now and asked everyone who came through the doors all day about Occam’s Razor, there’d be a bunch of folks who’d never heard of it. I bet bunches of them would be readers, too.

And there are readers who actively enjoy complicated sentence structures, second person, unusual narrative choices, challenging reading. Now, granted, you’ll probably sell more copies if you write like Dan Brown (and if you can hit on the combination of anti-Catholocism, pseudo-history, and Biblically-connected conspiracy theory he did. Please don’t get me started ranting on that topic). And if that’s your aim, well, you know, go for it.

But that is not the only way to please readers. A healthy chunk of readers want something more. Hell, a healthy chunk of readers want a lot more. And you probably won’t retire to your own island providing it, but you can do pretty well. It’s nice work, if you can get it.

Not all readers are the same. I know there are folks out there who just will not believe this, but some readers genuinely enjoy things you might think are “pretentious” or unreadable or whatever. Their taste is different. No, really, they actually enjoyed that. The writer was not trying to show how clever they were in writing it, they were just writing for a set of readers that does not include you. Which is fine! Nothing wrong with being (or not being) part of any particular intended audience.

It’s also, by the way, an actual impossibility to write a story that doesn’t require some kind of previous knowledge. Well, maybe Dr Seuss managed it. Maybe. Even Goodnight Moon is written for someone who’s got some kind of knowledge already in place. It would be a mess of incomprehensible syllables and images otherwise. (It probably is to a fair percentage of its intended audience, at least for a few months until they get a handle on things like bedtime and balloons and bears and chairs.) And while there are probably things large numbers of readers are likely to be familiar with, that will never be all readers.

I think there’s a kind of weird tendency to assume that one is, oneself, the baseline default sort of human. (I would, in a less charitable mood, suggest certain types of people are more liable to this assumption than others, but let’s leave that be for now.) And that if one likes something, everyone else must like it because of course it’s good or one wouldn’t like it! And if one doesn’t like it, of course it’s bad, and anyone who says they do like it is lying about it so they can seem hip and with it.

This is not the case. The fact is, there is no one single type of reader whose likes and dislikes can be so easily categorized. Best you can do is maybe figure out trends–larger numbers of readers prefer certain things, maybe. And that’s fine, but that’s not “The Reader.” That’s those particular readers.

When someone generalizes this way about what readers will or won’t read, or what they do or don’t want, ask yourself, “What reader?” (Often it’s obscured by the sentence but it’s there if you dig. “Readers don’t want books about women/POC/LGBT.” Oh, see what’s not being said there? What specific kind of reader is being framed as “all readers”? Which readers are being dismissed as not existing, or not worth caring about?)

Write the thing that interests you. Don’t worry too much about warnings that “readers” don’t want anything but standard vanilla custard writing. (No offense to vanilla custard. I might have to go make some when I’m done here because that sounds delicious. If you’re aiming for Dan Brown style bestsellers, well, you go, and good luck to you.) You, yourself, are a reader, and if your project seems cool to you, likely it will seem cool to at least some other readers. Don’t worry about what some nebulous mass of “readers” might or might not want. Worry about doing your cool thing really well so that those readers like you will appreciate it. You have my permission to stop taking advice from anyone who tells you that you can’t do anything interesting or difficult because “readers won’t like it.” (Or because editors won’t like it. Gods help us all, run don’t walk away from that advice.)

Yeah, sometimes bloggers or reviewers natter about how obviously such and so author is a pretentious git who hates their readers because everyone knows readers don’t like long sentences or present tense or second person or stories told out of temporal order or narrated by cats, or whatever. Such people are saying more about their failure to actually think very much about writing and reading than they’re saying about the work they criticize, and you have my permission, if you need it, to take them as seriously as they deserve. Which is to say, not at all.

Don’t worry about some nebulous mass of “readers.” Worry about your readers. Your readers will be people who appreciate the sort of thing you want to do, particularly when you do it well. They’re the ones who matter to you. And it won’t be the least bit coincidental that, when you please yourself with your work, when you do the things that fascinate and interest you the most, your readers will turn out to be interested in and fascinated by the same things.

Do the thing you want to do, as well as you can.

10 thoughts on “What the Reader Wants

  1. D
    David says:

    Well said and thank you for saying it.

    It’s the North American drive for bland, formulaic consistency, dislike of ambiguity and emphasis on body-count that has made U.K. authors such as Reynolds, Banks, Morgan, M. John Harrison, and Asher my go-to authors.

    After reading your first book I was frankly astonished to find you were from the U.S. even though the text was devoid of British’isms. I had just assumed that since it was a reasonably complex story you had to be from somewhere (anywhere) else.

    Writers such as yourself or “Steven Erikson” (a fellow Canuck) are far too rare on this side of the Atlantic. Keep up the great work, there are many of us to appreciate it.

  2. J
    Jade Monaco says:

    If a book doesn’t blast my mind out the back of my skull, I am unsatisfied.

  3. Solid advice – writing styles are like genres; everyone’s looking for something different. And like genres, it’s possible to like more than one.


  4. D
    Domini says:

    A corollary to this I think is being comfortable showing that you know something OTHER than writing very well. Maybe one section of readers won’t care, but maybe the others will be glad to learn something new, or glad to learn that the author is a fan of some subject too.

    For example, Breq and her singing…reminded me very much of Anne McCaffrey’s Helva from “The Ship Who Sang”…which is only one of her many books that incorporates musicality. Or there was a book I read from Rebecca Ore, who posited that bipedal (heh) aliens might find *bicycles* interesting, if they hadn’t invented similar themselves. (And you have to admit, bicycles are very body-shape-dependent…) It was really a “throw-away” line, but as a reader it made me stop and realize how unlikely it would have been for a non-bicycler to throw the idea in…or even someone with the automatic idea that there’s something out there that could be invented that would be so much better than bicycles that they’d replace them…*that* type of person never would have mentioned *bicycles* in a sci-fi book…

  5. Thank you. This was heartening to read.

    I prefer to read (and write) stories that I find are both compelling and challenging. I enjoy authors who require me to commit something of myself by teaching me: new words, new cultures, new experiences. Permit me to admire your wordcraft: the beauty of your writing, the magic of your prose (e.g. Michael Chabon, Mark Helprin).

    Too much of what is offered to today’s readers I personally find bland and uninspiring. The assumption that “sales” is the only determinant of an author’s success is superficial (however practical). It is false that sales somehow denote excellence, and it is absurd to believe excellence is the result of conformity.

    Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron” is a aptly observant cautionary tale whose warning is also relevant to writers and publishers (and readers).

    Thank you, Ms Leckie, for being one who has taken “the path less traveled by” and held up a lantern for others to follow.

    Dr. Bob

  6. D
    David says:

    That was wonderful Ann, thank you. I fear I was one of those people who failed to “actually think about writing and reading” in my younger days, inexplicably being asked for and dispensing advice of dubious value.

    These days, I question the value of criticism as a whole. It’s become entertainment in its own right, and it often seems only tangentially concerned with its source material. Always easier to poke fun than really engage with the enormous difficulty of creative endeavors.

  7. Erica says:

    Well said. And a given reader can even have moods where they want one thing one day and another thing on a different one.

    When I attended my first writing workshop, the question came up about marketability. If you use X in your story, or have Y types of people, it will obviously turn off some readers, right? So isn’t it better to avoid those things? The answer, as I remember, was that a writer can be just as successful by targeting a smaller group of very loyal readers (readers who will eagerly devour everything you write) as they can by targeting a larger group that is more sporadic.

  8. P
    Paul Connelly says:

    What that type of advice also says, implicitly, is: “We know what readers want.” Which is not only narrowly defining its audience but also backward-looking and unimaginative. It’s akin to the thinking of the legions of politicians who can’t utter an opinion without having it tested by a focus group. It’s the anti-Steve Jobs approach to creativity. It even implies a presumed knowledge about the target of the advice: “We know what kind of writer you want to be.”

    More people than ever seem to be looking at writing as a career and a source of income rather than as a vocation (or avocation), so maybe that’s what’s prompting the explosion of advice on how to become successful at it. But if you think of many of the great authors who came out of left field and wowed you with something you’d never experienced before, they were writing that way because they had to, because their inner concerns (even obsessions) were compelling them to do so. Were Virginia Woolf or J. G. Ballard or Thomas Pynchon studying what the reader wanted before they put pen to paper? The idea is absurd.

  9. B
    Bob says:

    Personally, I like it when a book doesn’t go where you think it will – in A GAME OF THRONES I was convinced Bran would be riding his direwolf into battle. Heh.
    I also like it when a books sticks with you a good long while after you’ve finished it.
    A few years ago I was unemployed, and in the downtime from job hunting I decided to do a writing exercise and it ended up going from a short story to a zombie apocalypse novel (don’t you judge me!). I was pretty proud of it, still am. My sister in-law had a talk show on her local radio station about books and reading. She’s a nerd and genre-friendly and was a perfect choice to ask to proof-read it, right?
    Well, I found out what type of reader she was. She doesn’t like surprises, thought the title was too “arty” – should have “Dead Guy” in it somewhere, she said – basically she wants to be able to predict the outcome and almost always reads the ending of the book first.Mine wasn’t happy enough. I said it might not have the happiest ending (um, zombie apocalypse?), but had the one it needed, and had the resonance I wanted. She didn’t care, she just wants to read and then move on to the next book.
    Yeah. Not the kind of reader I was aiming for I guess…

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