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Write for Your Readers

June 2, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 2, 2011

We’ve all heard about the changes in the writing world—the consolidation of publishing houses, the birth and advancement of e-books, the new choices authors now have to introduce their stories to the public, including self-publishing options.

We’ve also heard that traditional books have no future and that fiction itself is dying.

You’ve heard those rumors, right? Told as if they’re prophecy from the great Writing Oracle.

Yet, while the delivery methods of story might, and should, change, I very much doubt that fiction is in its death throes.

Fiction, story, and entertainment have been with us from our very beginnings. Story, pretence, and make-believe will always have a place in humanity’s world; they’re a great part of who we are and a way we make sense of events and our reactions to those events.

Story helps us safely navigate and explore what can often be dangerous or alarming, what is unknown and fear-inducing.

Fiction allows us to dream and imagine. Fiction helps us with the what-ifs and how-abouts. It pushes us beyond the immediate and factual and into realms of possibility, not certainties but could-bes. Fiction both tantalizes and satisfies the yearning soul, the dreaming psyche. It challenges the explorer and comforts the timid.

I read an article or a tweet or something this week that lead me to another article, “The Death of Fiction?” by Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. The VQR is the literary magazine of the University of Virginia, and the article I read was posted online at Mother Jones early in 2010.

The focus of the article is university quarterlies and their decline. The topic is interesting and as is often true, the readers’ comments are as fascinating as the article itself.

What struck me, more than the talk of a decline in sales and subscriptions and more than the discussion of the relevance of such magazines, was the simple fact that few are reading the stories in these quarterlies.

What Genoways was most concerned about was the future of the quarterlies and the impact on writer’s programs and student writers. I, however, wanted to know if the stories went unread because they held no appeal for readers.

Had the writers forgotten their audience?

Once greatly in vogue, at least with student writers and writing instructors, these literary magazines apparently have many fewer readers.

That’s certainly not what writers strive for, to be published but unread.

Or is it?

Do some write only to be published, uncaring what the readers think? Uncaring that there are no readers?

After reading the article, I wanted to be one to speak a reminder to writers, a reminder to write for the audience, the reader, and not solely to accrue writing credit for being published in some magazine.

Of what value is story if it remains unread, even if it is published in a literary journal?

That’s not to say that all such magazines have no readers or that all are obsolete. I’ve not done a study, so I couldn’t tell you the true state of such publications. But if the readership is down, could there be a reason that writers can fix?

If we write stories that readers enjoy, will they read more? Have writers brought about low readership and subscription levels because they’ve forgotten the reader, forgotten to write stories that entertain?

Do writers remember the living individuals who sit on the other side of story pages, people who read to escape or to take adventures or to simply go somewhere new, if only in their imaginations?

 Do writers actually care whether or not they write engaging stories?

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My suggestion for writers is that they remember their audience and write to entertain them. Yes, to please them.

That doesn’t mean that you write the same story that another writes or in the same style as an author who sells millions of each book. It does mean that you offer an entertaining or compelling read.

Look at your work. Are you writing for yourself only or for a wider audience? Are you writing to challenge yourself, to try the unusual and untried and avant-garde simply because you want to prove you can achieve something never achieved?

There’s nothing wrong with such a goal; we should always be writing better and stronger with successive books and stories.

Yet we can’t blame readers if they don’t enjoy what we place before them.

There’s a place and time for expanding our skills and for trying the quirky. But that place may no longer be in a literary magazine and it may not be in our next novel. We can’t force the odd and strange on our readers. Well, we could try to do just that, but we can’t make them like our experimental writing.

They may enjoy it, and if so, we’ve gained readers.  But people have every right to turn away from stories that don’t entertain.

Readers come to fiction primarily for entertainment. They may learn something, they may solve puzzles or stretch their minds, but they want entertainment. If they wanted to be taught, they’d go first to something other than a novel or short story. If they wanted to be swayed to an opinion, they’d seek a magazine article, the op-ed page, or a preacher.

Novels and story can deal with great social issues, of course. But the most powerful do so in an entertaining manner, in a way that taps not only into a reader’s mind but into his heart. Story engages mind and imagination and emotions, all of which can be used to draw the reader deep into the themes and topics you want him to think about, that you want him to dwell on.

We know from our own experiences that fiction can affect individual readers as well as sway large numbers. Yet writers must not come across as overly preachy or manipulative. Thus the need for the entertainment factor. Even if we write to move our readers, either emotionally or to actually act on what they’ve read, we want to do it in a way that touches them without turning them off, that draws them in without making them wonder if we’re up to something, if we’re pushing a personal agenda, if we’re forcing some issue on them.

Readers who feel manipulated might quite easily put down a novel and never pick it up again.

But even with this restriction against obvious manipulation, we have near endless choices.

What entertains one reader may be vastly different from what entertains another, so writers have many, many options for plot and approach and style. We can entertain a large audience, even with the limitations we impose. But if we experiment and produce something vastly non-entertaining, being surprised when people refuse to read it just doesn’t make sense.

If you want readers, you have to write for them. Yes, you need to please the audience, even though you may have heard that true artists write or paint or play only for themselves.

We know that’s not true. Not if we intend to sell books to readers other than ourselves.

If you are your only audience, you miss a great portion of your potential as a writer.

I’d like to say that you can do whatever you want, write whatever you want and in any style, but I’d be doing you a disservice to suggest that.

If you want readers, an audience of more than one, you have to consider them. You have to give them thought as you’re writing, as you’re rewriting and editing, as you’re promoting.

If you don’t care to be published or read, then what others think is irrelevant. But if you write for an audience, their likes and dislikes are quite relevant.

Of course you’ll never please everyone. You can’t. You won’t. Please don’t try and don’t feel that you’re a failure if some simply don’t care for your style or your subjects or your characters. People are too different for your work to appeal to everyone.

But you should know who you are trying to appeal to. What would they enjoy? What do they read? How can you give them what they want at the same time you challenge yourself to write something different with each story?

That’s one of writing’s mysteries, that ability to appeal to an audience at the same time you satisfy your own writing needs. We can get help and advice from others who’ve gone before us, but we need to discover for ourselves how to infuse our writing with those factors that make readers want to settle down in a quiet corner with our books the moment they’re available.

If a sure-fire formula existed, everyone could follow it and produce best-sellers. But there is no formula. Each writer has to fashion her skills and her plot ideas into pleasing stories. And the method and that fashioning is different for every writer.

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What I kept wondering when I read that article on the possible death of fiction was whether the writers of pieces in those literary magazines actually considered their audience before they wrote or if they wrote solely to please themselves and other writers and the magazines’ editors.

Do we respect our readers, or do we insist they’re at fault if they don’t “get” our work? Do we write for an audience of one or to entertain a true audience, people outside our own minds?

Do we experiment with an eye to proving we can master a particular task we set ourselves, so we can pat ourselves on the back, or do we experiment in order to bring new styles and approaches to an audience looking for something fresh?

I don’t want to say that there aren’t times of pure experimentation and times of stretching ourselves and of taking risks. Unless you’re quite content with your output and audience, you should always challenge yourself. But you should also remember readers and consider their needs. Remember, too, that they can choose to read someone else, to buy other books.

Can I suggest that you find the balance between writing for audience and writing for self?

Know what you want from your writing life, whether it’s satisfaction measured solely by your own standards or whether it’s the acclaim of a wider audience.

I’m guessing that most who would read this article are writing for more than their own pleasure, that you want to please readers. That you want to have readers. So my reminder is that you remember them as you create. Remember to give them something to laugh at or cry over or ponder. Give them stories that resonate, stories they can understand, or stories they can live in for a while, live in and draw from and use to stimulate their own lives.

Write for your readers.

If you are your only reader, then you already know what pleases you. If you write for others, you may need to do some research to see what you can do to reach them, even if that reach and contact will last only a few hours. Or perhaps you can touch readers in a way that will change their lives, set them on a new course. But you won’t do either if you don’t give thought to the reader as you write your stories.

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This article’s a bit different—no suggestions for grammar or any of the elements of fiction. But it’s a topic just as important for writers. What good are grammar and plot or character or setting without an audience of readers?

I’m curious to know how others feel about this topic, whether you think it’s important to write to please the reader or if you’re of the belief that writers should write to please only themselves.

Maybe you have a great argument for another perspective. If so, please share. Multiple viewpoints can bring clarity to any topic.

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: A Writer's Life

9 Responses to “Write for Your Readers”

  1. Rima says:

    What a terrific post. I do believe that literary journals and the like feel “above” the average audience, and that their writers write simply for their small literary groups. Getting published in those journals amounts to prestige, and even if no one reads your story, it’s not supposed to matter. I agree that the reasons for the decline in readership is exactly because the writers don’t write for a broad enough audience.

  2. Hi, Rima. I’d heard the same said about literary magazines many years ago. I wonder what/who conveys the prestige if it isn’t the readers.

    While I admit that there are times when you write to test yourself, to try something new, I can’t see the purpose in publishing magazines or books no one will read yet expecting people to pay for them. Experimenting in a classroom is expected. Competing with other writers in order to win a prominent place in some kind of showcase also has merit. But to expect readers to pay for the privilege of reading such stories is going too far. These stories might be well written in terms of the mechanics. But if they’re not also appealing, if they don’t capture readers, then haven’t they failed in some major way?

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. This is an excellent article! I wholeheartedly agree that a writer who wants to have a wide audience needs to write with the intent of entertaining as much of that audience as possible. This is how I work when I’m writing, always factoring in plot and character elements that I know make the best story, then when I’m editing, I cut out and change the parts that need changing to make that even better.

  4. Excellent article, I agree with the comments about the university journals. I regularly read this type of writing for my research, and after I am finished my brain hurts. The content does not stay with me, and I feel the authors are only publishing for their peers and tenure requirements. Fresh voices that can connect with a wider audience would be appreciated.

  5. Paul, it sounds as though you have a great method—looking for the best at each stage of your writing. I think we sometimes forget readers when we concentrate so hard on story mechanics, but you seem to have that covered in your own approach. Here’s hoping that all writers find that balance between craft issues and the entertainment factor.

    Good luck with your writing.

  6. Mary Jo, I hadn’t thought of being published in a literary magazine as keeping up with tenure requirements, but that’s a good point. Maybe writers find they can’t be published in the literary journals unless they’re writing outside of the mainstream, outside of what passes for popular fiction.

    Maybe the editors of the literary magazines should open them up to more popular fare. Yes, we can get those kinds of stories elsewhere, but if that’s what readers are looking for, why not give them something they’ll enjoy?

    I’m curious to know what the writers who do get published in such journals feel about the experience—do they feel they must write to a particular style in order to get published? Are they restricted when they’d rather be writing something more universally appealing?

    Here’s hoping the stories get more entertaining so readers can take away something memorable from them, something more memorable than brain pain. Challenging is one thing; incomprehensible or pointless is quite another.

    Thanks for your comments.

  7. gail says:

    I enjoyed this article.Many times when I think about what audiences want, I wonder if I can write that. I am new to writing and have yet to get published. Thanks, I will be reading more of your blogs.

  8. Gail, I have no doubt you’ll learn what audiences want and begin to write stories that appeal to them. Of course, tastes change, so we’ll always need to keep up with our readers.

    Good luck in your quest for publication.

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