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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.