Sep 26 2009

Your Readers Are Not The Same As You!

One of the most common mental mistakes that plagues writers is the logical fallacy that if they do or prefer something, their target audience does too.  Not necessarily!  Here are a few ways in which readers tend to differ from authors.

1.  Readers are usually less patient than writers. As a result, they tend to get aggravated when the author doesn’t give them enough information.  (Rule of thumb: the readers are entitled to anything relevant that the POV knows).  Many writers like being cryptic because they think that hiding the POV’s information from the reader will create intrigue.  Most readers do not like reading cryptic works.

2.  Readers start at page 1 and typically will put down the book as soon as they are dissatisfied. Ahem–they aren’t patient.  This means that the quality of the opening few pages is absolutely critical to readers. In contrast, writers often phone in the beginning because they want to get to the “meat” of the story or whatever.  THAT IS A MISTAKE.  Most readers will not plod along in the hopes that the story will get interesting or clear.  They will put down the book unless it is interesting and clear from page one.

3.  A novel-reader’s goal is usually entertainment. If your readers want to be entertained but you are focused on some other goal (such as enlightening them or changing their political/moral/religious beliefs), you have a huge problem.  If you want to get a mass-market novel published and have a goal besides entertainment in mind, I highly recommend making that goal secondary to entertainment unless you have a great reason to do otherwise.  For example, if you’re writing a really literary work aimed at older, philosophically-minded readers, it’s plausible that they’d be receptive to a novel that isn’t focused on entertainment– just keep in mind that such audiences are generally pretty rare.

4.  Readers are generally less likely to appreciate a new approach for its own sake. We authors want so badly to be original that we sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot.  For example, at least two novels have been written without the letter E.  That’s a gimmick that would probably distract readers rather than impress them.  In contrast, some unusual approaches are compelling because they open up many fresh story opportunities.  For example, writing a story about a supervillain protagonist would probably entice readers because we haven’t read 100 books in that vein.  When you try something new, like writing a team of 20 main superheroes or whatever, try evaluating whether it adds enough to the readers’ experience to justify the costs.

5.  Authors tend to like overstylized speech more than readers do. One sign that a character’s accent, dialect, speech impediment or voice may be too over-the-top is that the author feels the need to reference, explain or excuse it in-story.  (For example, a character might ridicule a particularly obnoxious accent.  If you really need to justify your stylistic choices to your readers, rather than let your style justify itself, readers will probably find it difficult or even painful to read through.  Be careful.

Hmm, what do you think? Have you ever felt like an author was writing something more for himself than for you?

13 responses so far

13 Responses to “Your Readers Are Not The Same As You!”

  1. B. Macon 26 Sep 2009 at 9:53 am

    I was inspired to write this post by a post I recently did on the size of the recent protests in Washington, DC. In this case, the event was interesting to me because I currently work in Washington and faced heavy Metro delays. But my readers are not the same as me– specifically, 99% of y’all aren’t from Washington and came here for superhero writing advice rather than my observations on DC protests. Or sports stuff, for that matter– I’ve cut back on that a lot, but last year I did a LOT of sports stuff here.

  2. Holliequon 26 Sep 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Of course, it probably didn’t help that a fair portion of your readership isn’t even American. 😉

    In all seriousness, you have some really sounds advice here, I think. For example, it never would have occurred to me that people will put books down. When the beginning of a novel begins to drag on, I tend to slog through it anyway — in fact, I think I’ve only ever put one book down out of boredom, and even then I’d got half-way through.

  3. Tomon 26 Sep 2009 at 12:14 pm

    I put down Lord of the Rings halfway through. It’s one of the ONLY books I’ve ever quit reading. Odd, I found the Hobbit readable.

  4. B. Macon 26 Sep 2009 at 1:15 pm

    Yeah, about 33% of our readership is from outside the US, despite my best attempts at jingoism. 😉 Actually, that strikes me as pretty typical. Americans make up about two-thirds of the world’s native English-speakers (~250 million Americans vs. ~120 million in UK, Canada, Australia, NZ and Ireland). So, if we accept that an English-language writing website is only going to appeal to native English-speakers*, it’s pretty close. In fact, Americans might even be slightly underrepresented. (Maybe I should ramp up the CIA propaganda?**)

    *This assumption is crude but probably mostly accurate. According to my interactions with guests, my best guess is that a few percent of our readers are nonnative English speakers. Including a few fluent speakers!

    **A hate-mail once accused us of doing CIA-funded propaganda, so it’s sort of become a running joke here. 😛 If I ever get my comic book published, I think it would be absolutely hilarious if the CIA did fund my work by buying recruitment ads. You know, a little bit of interagency cooperation? 😉

  5. StarEon 26 Sep 2009 at 1:23 pm

    About #1, I remember reading a novel like that. One of the main characters betrayed the others in a serious way, but then the POV character retracted it in the middle by suddenly announcing, “She’s not really evil! We made a contingency plan – if we ever got captured, she would pretend to be evil to give us leverage.” I felt pretty cheated that the first-person point of view character failed to mention that earlier…
    Since my novel deals a lot with memories and such, I’ll have to make sure I don’t fall into that pattern, ’cause I know it’s irritating, haha.
    Good points, B. Mac.

  6. Marissaon 26 Sep 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Maximum Ride, StarE?

  7. StarEon 26 Sep 2009 at 2:14 pm

    LOL, yeah. 😀 I was avoiding spoilers… But that was a total “wtf” moment, especially because in several scenes prior, we saw Max acting legimately surprised by the would-be traitor’s behavior. She didn’t just withhold information as the POV character, but outright lied about it, haha.

  8. Tom Ingramon 26 Sep 2009 at 8:25 pm

    @ Tom:

    I did the same thing my first go. When Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, he was interested in fleshing out the fictional world he’d created by telling an epic story in it. The little details (which were the whole reason Tolkien bothered with the enterprise) are boring for most readers. On the other hand, when he wrote the Hobbit, it was a kids’ book and was never intended to be more than a good yarn (which connects nicely with point #3 above).

    I eventually read through LoTR and appreciated it, but when you start out, you have to have faith that it’ll get better, because the really exciting scenes don’t start until the middle of the series.

  9. B. Macon 26 Sep 2009 at 9:33 pm

    I was very, very put off by the physical condition of Tolkein’s books. The books I came across were always old and musty and the letters were hard to make out. So, even before I came across the ponderous description and fairly convoluted plot, I was predisposed to toss LOTR after a few chapters. And I did. The language was just so insufferable… I was quite happy to get back to Twain or Hemingway or Bradbury or whoever. (In the realm of fantasy, I find Rowling, Wrede and Zelazny to be vastly superior to JRRT, but I understand that’s the minority view).

  10. Tomon 27 Sep 2009 at 3:11 am

    About your comment on English speakers and this website: You have to remember there are 100% fluent English speakers in many countries worldwide. A new kid at my school just moved from Turkey a few weeks ago but he speaks fluently. I frequent a forum where there are many people from South-East Asia who speak English fluently.

  11. B. Macon 27 Sep 2009 at 9:20 am

    Tom, like I said, it’s a crude assumption that all of the world’s fluent English speakers are native speakers, or that they are all from mainly English-speaking countries. But either assumption is mostly accurate.*

    In our case, 92% of our traffic comes from mainly English-speaking countries. (Or US warzones– thanks, Bagram!) I’d attribute that mainly to 1) there are not many fluent English-speakers outside of the Anglophone world and 2) if someone is fluent in English as a second language, I sort of assume that they’d look at writing resources in their native language.

    I doubt that (say) a Saudi trying to get published in Saudi Arabia would find a website like this useful because what gets published in Saudi Arabia is probably very, very different from what gets published in the markets the webmaster is most familiar with (the US, for me). For example, magical realism faces major obstacles in the US but is much more acceptable in Spanish-language markets. Even between mainly English-speaking countries, there are considerable differences. For example, books that deal with homosexuality are more likely to face bookstore segregation (read: sales disaster) in the US than UK.

    *I can discuss this in more detail if you’d like, but I’d prefer to do so via e-mail.

  12. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 27 Sep 2009 at 10:05 pm

    “She didn’t just withhold information as the POV character, but outright lied about it, haha”.

    Haha, yeah, I had a bit of a “WTF” at that. Either Max was lying about her surprise or she was acting. Though it is quite in character for her to do such a thing, I was actually so confused that I went back through the book and mentally listed all the events leading up to the betrayal and then some during the betrayal. I still couldn’t fully understand it, so I just thought “okay, they were both lying”. Haha.

    The first three books were still awesome though, but the fourth and fifth are very anvilicious about the environment and stuff. I hope Patterson goes a little easier on the whole “humans are b**tards” thing for the next one. The summary of it so far doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the environment, unless the “apocalypse” happens to be global warming. 😉

    I mean, c’mon, though he put hints about it in the earlier books, the Aesop was just thrown right at readers in the fourth. Couldn’t he tone it down and make it more subtle? I have read a few posts on blogs about people not reading the series any more because of it. But I’m generally a more forgiving reader, so I’m going to follow it for its entirety and hope he gives the Greenpeace stuff a rest.

    Even though I myself am a pretty green person, even I get annoyed because it feels like he’s trying to make me even greener when I look like the frikkin Hulk. Haha.

    I have also read The Dangerous Days of Daniel X. Though the main character is quite overpowered, it’s still a good book. He actually uses his shapeshifting to do something intelligent, unlike all the others who have morals against it, even when the world is about to burn.

    But I’m really looking forward to Max Ride 6. It seems Fang is going to have a rival for Max’s affections. I just hope it doesn’t become like Edward vs Jacob. Haha. Even if it did though, MR is still written way better than Twilight.

  13. Wingson 29 Sep 2009 at 8:57 am

    Amen. To. That.

    In Maximum Ride, *slight spoilers* Angel is so ridiculously overpowered that I’ve forgotten most of them – or we’ll see an ability from another character and it will never be used again. Extremely annoying.

    As for Edward versus Jacob:

    *gives Edward to the Anti-Twilighters* Look, an Edward pinata! If you light it on fire you get extra candy!

    *gives Jacob to friend who loves Jacob and detests the rest of Twilight* Look, a life-sized plushie! Hug it!

    As for Bella, well….

    Let’s just say it involved chainsaws, the song that never ends, and clog dancing. Hahaha….

    – Wings

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