Know Your Reader

A friend handed me this quotation today:

“Writers really shouldn’t feel obliged to explain. Things should be left to the reader. I think the bond between the writer and the reader is very important. One writes the story; that is the writer’s part done. Then the reader gets to work; reading is his job. I have always enjoyed that connection with the reader I haven’t met but feel I know because of having shared an experience: the story.”

William Trevor

Irish Times interview 16 April 2011

 As a general rule you could hardly disagree with that and, as a reader, I often get annoyed when a writer over-explains. But I do feel that Trevor’s words are too simplistic. Readers come in all shapes and sizes. Some are well-read, others not so. Some will read your book in the quiet, others may not have that luxury; your words may have to compete with screaming or attention-seeking children. Some of your readers may be distracted by real-world worries; they may be unable to concentrate fully on what you have written, however they may wish to.

The content of your masterpiece may be replete with subtle references to Greek mythology, but these will never reach some readers. If your book is a sequel you may be depending on a familiarity with your characters that new readers of your books will not have.

In my own case I find that my reading experience is variable. There are days when I can devote all my attention to the book I am reading, but there are others when I find myself reading in coffee shops, waiting rooms – even supermarkets. My levels of concentration vary accordingly.

I have been told that, as a writer, I need continually to remind the reader who my characters are. I think this is good advice for minor characters that appear and reappear with long gaps between, but I wonder to what extent it should apply to characters that appear frequently and populate the spine of the story. An obvious villain, for example, if introduced with detailed description and dialogue, should be firmly embedded in the reader’s mind, even if he or she appears infrequently.

The same arguments apply to the trail of clues in any novel containing a mystery. The writer drops breadcrumbs for the reader to gather. But how obvious these clues are, and how abundant will depend on the writer’s idea of the reader’s perception, attention span, and intelligence.

And again, we could apply the same argument to the language used. How literate should you assume your reader to be? I have read books and short stories that have received critical approval but whose clouded storylines leave me unmoved or puzzled.

I suppose the question is: to what extent can a writer depend on the reader’s:

  • Levels of concentration
  • Intelligence
  • Literacy
  • Erudition
  • Attention to detail.

 Perhaps it’s important to have a good idea who your reader is as you write.



2 thoughts on “Know Your Reader

  1. ggiammatteo says:

    Good post, JJ. I tend to slip a little on the “reminding” readers part of writing. But I think no matter what, a writer has to tell their story as they see fit. I think if a writer tries adapting their style or voice to fit a particular group of readers it will come across that way. It’s a fine line, but in the end, I’d say “just write” and let the readers find you. Interesting post and it made me give a lot of thought to the subject. Thanks.

  2. jjtoner says:

    Thanks for the comment, Jim. I notice that you don’t use a structural editor, relying instead on beta readers. My structural editor is the one who insists that I remind the reader who my minor characters are, and I usually do as I’m told. 🙂

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